As the familiar phrase goes, “what you see isn’t always what you get.” For Florida voters, that may very well be the case this November, as two competing groups work to persuade voters to either cement—or modify—current solar energy policy in Florida. The question at the forefront of the contentious debate over how Florida should respond to the growing demand for solar energy is whether, and to what extent, new solar generators should be able to sell directly to the consumer.
Under Florida law, if anyone other than a large utility company—such as Duke Energy or Florida Power & Light Company—wants to sell solar power, they have to sell directly to a utility rather than the consumer. Some say it’s time to bring the Sunshine State out of the dark by allowing solar generators to subvert the utility monopolies, just like 46 other states allow. Others insist that the current scheme is better because it maintains the integrity of measures that should prevent utility companies from taking advantage of consumers. According to some advocates, however, the restriction is not designed to protect consumers, but instead keeps Florida lagging behind on renewable energy policy and is merely designed to prevent an increase in competition within the utility market.
Fed up with the current restriction on solar generators, environmentalists and clean energy advocates— “Floridians for Solar Choice”—spearheaded a grassroots movement last summer to amend the State Constitution. Their initiative would have allowed companies with solar capabilities to sell energy—with restrictions—to adjacent properties as long as the amount of energy sold was capped at a small amount. The group needed slightly more than 683,000 signatures to get on the November 2016 ballot, but they fell short by more than 200,000.
In a rare move to create a competing solar energy petition drive, a second group—labeling themselves the “Consumers for Smart Solar”—emerged, with plans of their own. As the initiative led by “Floridians for Solar Choice” slowly began to run on fumes, The “Solar Choice” amendment picked up steam—due in large part to the resourceful donors of the group’s campaign—and will appear as Amendment 1 on the ballot this November. Interestingly, Amendment 1 merely codifies into the State Constitution what many recognize is already existing Florida law.
The move to create a competing ballot initiative was legally unprecedented in Florida, but politically clever nonetheless. By beating “Floridians for Solar Choice” to the punch, the “Smart Solar” language provides many voters with misguided comfort that Florida energy policy is moving closer to where many environmental and consumer advocates have been suggesting for years, but its impact would actually have the opposite effect by doing what many call “maintaining the status quo.” Amendment 1 would not only cement the state’s restriction on selling solar power directly to consumers, but by placing the language in the Constitution it makes a future repeal, or modification, much more difficult.
For example, the amendment would provide Florida consumers with the “right” to use solar power—which is something they already can do—and it includes language that “ensures” that consumers who do not use solar or renewable energy devices aren’t “required” to pitch in for the costs of solar that is used by other consumers. The language implies that it is current Florida policy to allow less affluent or responsible solar energy users to pass on their own costs of renewable energy devices to others. However, this type of “free-loading” scheme is not currently permitted under Florida law.
The amendment has also been hotly contested because of the manner in which signatures for the measure were gathered. “Consumers for Smart Solar” paid its petition-gatherers $4 per signatures collected, compared to the $2 per signature for those paid to collect petitions on behalf of “Floridians for Solar Choice.” The two groups’ paid petition-gatherers also regularly appeared at the same locations and events, adding to voters’ confusion over which amendment they were agreeing to support.
But wait—there’s more!
To get ahead of the battle brewing between “Floridians for Solar Choice” and “Consumers for Smart Solar,” State Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) pursued a ballot measure during the 2016 Legislative Session that actually would provide direct benefits for those who choose to buy solar or renewable energy equipment.
This August, a special statewide election will be held to give voters the opportunity to decide whether the property tax exemption for renewable energy devices that is available to Florida homeowners should also be available to owners of commercial, industrial or even agricultural property. If approved by voters, the amendment—which will appear as Amendment 4 on the ballot for the August primary election—would allow the Florida Legislature to provide an ad valorem tax exemption from the assessed value of real property that is upgraded or newly-constructed with a solar or renewable energy source device, such as solar paneling, heating, or lighting. The solar or renewable energy source devices would also be exempt from the tangible personal property tax that is otherwise owed on equipment that is used for business purposes.
If Amendment 4 receives a “yes” vote by at least sixty percent of those who vote in the August 30th primary, the Legislature may authorize the exemption during the 2017 Legislative Session. The amendment would take effect on January 1, 2018.
As far as the fight between “Floridians for Solar Choice” and “Consumers for Smart Solar”…well, time will tell whether Florida’s solar energy policy is due for an oil change, and whose advocacy efforts amounted to more than just smoke and mirrors.