Environment

Are Florida voters about to pass a sham solar amendment?

Amendment 1 was put on the ballot by utility companies and has been widely criticized. But most voters don’t know that.
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Update, November 1, 11 a.m. EST: Florida's largest utilities have sunk another $3.5 million into Amendment 1, bringing total contributions to $26 million, according to new campaign finance reports; $2 million of the new contributions came from the state's largest utility, Florida Power & Light, and $1 million came from Duke Energy, the second largest utility.

Solar energy advocates are increasingly concerned that Floridians will cast their ballots November 8 in favor of an initiative that purports to expand solar energy in the state, but which actually makes it easier for utility companies to block the sun.

Florida is currently one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to solar power generated. Today in Florida, less than a tenth of one percent of energy is being generated by solar.

On first glance, Amendment 1 aims to improve that. But cloaked in confusing ballot language is an amendment that actually does nothing to open up the solar market in Florida, and which could even end up making it much harder for people to install solar.

Univision is aware of a number of voters who already cast early votes in favor of the measure, assuming it was a vote for more solar energy.

The amendment is supported by Florida’s utility companies, which have a monopoly on the local market, and they've funnelled $22 million into a campaign to make sure the measure passes November 8.

What the amendment actually means

Amendment 1, which appears on the ballot as “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” establishes that consumers have the "right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property." This is actually already legal, so the amendment changes nothing except adding it to the state constitution.

It will also allow state and local governments to protect “consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare,” which is also already happening.

The controversial part of the amendment is related to “net metering,” a billing mechanism that credits solar users for the electricity they generate and add to the grid.

Basically, if the solar panels on your home’s roof make more energy than you need, the excess energy gets sent back to the larger power grid for utility companies to sell. And you get a credit -- a lower bill -- for doing that.

As solar has grown across the country, net metering has been an effective way to lower costs for consumers. But a number of utilities have contended that these net metering fees are unfair. With solar customers paying less money to utilities, costs get transferred to utilities and non-solar customers, they say.

As such, Amendment 1 says consumers “who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.” In other words, solar consumers won’t get any sort of financial incentive for going solar and producing lots of energy.

In fact, they could end up paying more.

And that’s not the only barrier for people who are eager to go solar. Florida is one of only four states that require solar energy be sold exclusively by utilities. The result is limited options for installing solar and increased upfront costs for consumers, which creates a major obstacle for many.

Because the costs of installing solar panels is still so high, people are less likely to take on that upfront expense unless there’s a future payoff in the form of lower bills.

That’s precisely what happened in Nevada. After a l aw went into effect that allowed utility companies to charge rooftop solar users extra, the state's solar industry effectively died. New residential solar installation permits fell 92 percent in Nevada in the first quarter of 2016.

How did this amendment make it to the ballot?

Last year, an alliance of citizen and environmental groups formed Floridians for Solar Choice, which introduced an initiative to put an amendment on the ballot that would expand Florida’s solar market.

The amendment would have changed Florida’s constitution to allow businesses other than utilities to sell solar power to consumers.

The group raised roughly $2 million and was endorsed by a slew of environmental groups, both local and national. But ultimately it did not get enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

Instead, Consumers for Smart Solar challenged the amendment with its own rival ballot initiative, which has now become Amendment 1. It was made possible with cash from utilities like FPL, Gulf Power Co., and Tampa Electric Co. as well as groups tied to the billionaire Koch brothers.

The utilities argue that Amendment 1 serves a regulatory role, increasing the health and safety of consumers.

In March, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente wrote a sharp dissent of Amendment 1, calling it an intentional way to confuse voters. She wrote that Amendment 1 was the "proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing" ... "masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative."

"Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware," Pariente wrote.

Virtually every major newspaper in the state has come out against the measure.

Earlier this month, the policy director of a think tank hired by Florida’s utility companies admitted in leaked audio published by the Miami Herald that the utility companies were intentionally deceiving voters with Amendment 1.

Sal Nuzzo, vice president at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, said the amendment was “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”

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