Across the United States, solar energy is hot. California has installed enough solar energy capacity to power well over 3 million homes. Arizona, North Carolina and New Jersey are big in the solar game, too, with enough combined solar energy to power close to a million homes. When it comes to jobs, the solar industry is adding workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy.
But not in Florida. Ironically, "The Sunshine State" doesn’t even make the list of the top 10 states when it comes to solar capacity. Today in Florida, less than a tenth of one percent of energy is being generated by solar. The state ranks third in the nation for rooftop solar potential, but 14th for solar installed.
A new constitutional initiative aims to change that, by making solar equipment more affordable.
No solar in the Sunshine State
"Florida is the sunshine state, but it is way behind in solar," says Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association. "It's actually behind states from which people flee to Florida to get sunshine. That doesn’t make any sense."
In Europe solar is also well advanced. Germany, not known for its sunny skies, has more installed solar capacity than the entire United States.
New Jersey, a state with a fraction of Florida’s land area (not to mention a lot more gray days), has six times as much installed solar power.
States like Hawaii, California, Vermont and New York have mandated that their utility companies get a substantial portion of their energy from renewable energy, including solar. In Hawaii, utility companies must move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
Florida, on the other hand, doesn’t have a single minimum requirement.
Tax breaks for solar in Florida
Now, an initiative is on the table to remove one big barrier for solar in Florida: taxes. In Florida, businesses that install solar are now being taxed extra on solar panels and other equipment.
On August 30, Florida voters will cast their ballots for a new constitutional initiative, Amendment 4, that aims to eliminate those taxes. The amendment has received widespread, bipartisan support, and even a nod from traditional utility companies. That’s unprecedented in the renewable energy push.
"Amendment 4 is a big deal," says Alissa Jean Schafer, solar communications and policy manager at Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "When we started looking at the policy changes that need to happen in Florida so the state can live up to its potential, the tax issue was at the top."
In essence, the amendment would make it so that home and business owners don’t have to pay additional taxes when property values increase because of solar equipment. There's already such a policy in place for some homeowners; this would expand it.
The amendment would also exempt taxes on equipment passed on by leasing companies.
The bipartisan measure was placed on the ballot by the Florida legislature in the spring, and must get 60 percent support from voters to pass on August 30. A wide range of groups favor the proposal, including the Florida Retail Federation, the Nature Conservancy, the Christian Coalition and Conservatives for Energy Freedom.
Last week, Reverend Al Sharpton became the first prominent voice to oppose the measure, when he gave a press conference in Opa-Locka, Florida, calling the tax break a “corporate giveaway” that would take taxes away from social programs and community development efforts for poor communities.
"I think it’s the exact opposite," Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican and one of the co-sponsors of the measure, told Florida Politics. "It really helps public schools and it helps all the businesses to diversify their energy, to install solar panels on top of their roofs, or other renewable energy devices, and I think the entire community is going to benefit from that."
Florida State Representative José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat whose district is in Miami, has been a vocal supporter of the amendment. "Lowering property taxes for businesses and households that invest in solar panels encourages investment," he told Univision News.
A more controversial measure
But Schafer says a better tax policy is just one "tool in the toolbox" for comprehensive solar policy in Florida. "We still have a long, long, long way to go," she says. "Multiple policies in Florida need to change."
Broad support for Amendment 4 is a far cry from another solar power constitutional amendment that Floridians will vote on later this year, Amendment 1, which focuses on who can sell solar infrastructure. That amendment has been much more controversial.
In Florida, consumers who want to get solar are now forced to rely on the state’s big utility companies. Actually, Florida is one of the only states that requires solar to be sold exclusively by utilities.
In many states, consumers have the option to purchase from among hundreds of companies that install rooftop solar panels at a low cost. Those companies lease rooftop solar equipment to homeowners and bill them monthly for the electricity created, which lets people enter the market for little or no money down and pay as they go. As a result of such policies in California, solar installations are increasingly located in predominantly moderate-income neighborhoods.
An initiative called Floridians for Solar Choice sought to introduce an amendment to change the rules in Florida, allowing businesses other than utilities to sell solar power to consumers, like exists in California and other states. But the initiative did not receive enough signatures to appear on the ballot before the end of the year.
Instead, a competing amendment backed by Florida’s utilities will appear in November. Amendment 1 would write into the state constitution the current rules on who can sell solar (in other words, just the utilities).
Florida utilities, including Florida Power & Light Co, Tampa Electric Co and Duke Energy Florida, argued that the ballot initiative for greater choice would strip local governments of regulatory powers, increasing the possibility of health, safety and building code violations.
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.