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Power companies paid civil rights leaders in the US south. They became loyal industry advocates

FPL is among the utilities in the South that have curried favor with civil rights groups through donations and lucrative contracts. (Adam Sacasa/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

By Mario Alejandro Ariza and Kristi E Swartz for Floodlight and Adam Mahoney for Capital B

Former Florida state representative Joe Gibbons sat in the library of the Faith Community Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, trying to convince its pastor to quit promoting rooftop solar.

With a lobbyist’s charms Gibbons told the Rev Nelson Johnson that rooftop solar, which allows customers to generate their own renewable electricity, was bad for people of color. Gibbons argued that it creates an imbalance in which those without solar panels end up subsidizing those who have them, Johnson recalled in an interview with Floodlight.

Johnson, a civil rights stalwart who was stabbed by a member of the Klu Klux Klan in 1979, had trouble believing him.

“It felt like he was an employee of Duke,” Johnson said of Gibbons, referencing his state’s power company.

At the time Gibbons met Johnson in 2015, Duke Energy was opposing a state bill that would have allowed anyone to install solar panels and sell electricity directly to consumers. Johnson was at the center of a legal battle over just such a third-party solar project planned for his church.

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