Solar Energy Advocates Find Unexpected Ally In Tea Party

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Florida is one of several states where the Tea Party has embraced a new cause: solar energy. Tea Party groups are teaming up with progressive organizations to open up the solar energy industry. It's an unusual coalition and puts them at odds in some states with another conservative grassroots organization, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Some Tea Party groups are mobilizing around something that until now has largely been associated with the left - solar energy. In Florida, Tea Party-ers are joining environmental and business groups to push for a ballot initiative. That would open up the state's solar industry to more private investment. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, that interest puts the Tea Party at odds with some other conservatives.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Groups promoting solar energy in Florida have gathered more than 100,000 signatures, enough to submit the ballot initiative to the courts for review. And, they held an event to announce it in Tallahassee.

CATHERINE BAER: Hi. The Tea Party network is proud to join Floridians for Solar Choice and this broad coalition of organizations in support of the ballot initiative.

ALLEN: Catherine Baer chairs Florida's Tea Party network. She represents more than 80 Tea Party groups. They're working to change the law in Florida so that people and businesses will be allowed to generate and sell solar power.

BAER: It makes good sense. First of all, it's a free market choice. The Tea Party has long been a champion of property rights. We believe that if you own the property, you should be able to do what you want with your property.

ALLEN: Currently in Florida, only utilities are allowed to sell power - solar or otherwise. The initiative the groups want to put before the voters would allow people and businesses to sell power from small rooftop solar systems. Property owners would be able to make deals with companies to install systems and sell them the power generated over the long-term at a fixed rate. It's a model used in other states. Environmentalists and the solar industry are on board of course, as is the Florida Retail Federation. Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy calls it an unusual coalition but one with a common goal.

STEPHEN SMITH: None of us want monopolies interfering with people's right to be able to use solar in Florida, in the Sunshine State. We don't necessarily talk about a whole lot of other issues, but on this issue, we really do come together.

ALLEN: Tea Party groups have also embraced solar in other states, like Indiana, Texas and Georgia. Debbie Dooley helped start the Atlanta Tea Party, later the Green Tea Coalition, and now, Conservatives for Energy Freedom. That group has worked in Georgia and now in Florida to open the solar industry to more private investment. Dooley has been traveling around the country talking to Tea Party groups about solar. And she says they're receptive.

DEBBIE DOOLEY: You know, monopolies are the government's way of picking winners and losers, so it's only natural that Tea Party activists would have major issues with monopolies.

ALLEN: Dooley has come under attack from other conservatives, most notably, Americans for Prosperity. That's a group founded by activists David and Charles Koch, who made much of their money in the oil and gas industry. AFP opposed Dooley and a solar campaign she spearheaded in Georgia. The group's Georgia director Michael Harden says he believes some Tea Party members who support Dooley's groups are being misled.

MICHAEL HARDEN: Granted, these are folks that, you know, they lack the option of putting solar rays on their roof and, you know, supplying some of their own electricity, et cetera. But they're a little vague and where they tend to sometimes maybe not be getting all the facts is they're not OK with government mandating that.

ALLEN: Utilities in Florida said they haven't yet taken a position. The solar effort here is just getting started. The groups working on it say they hope to have it on the ballot in the 2016 general election. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

MCEVERS: The Tea Party movement is celebrating a birthday. It was six years ago this week that the first Tea Party rallies were held. Tomorrow morning NPR's Ron Elving takes a look at its origins and where it's headed. That's as you start your day with Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.