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Green Building News

In Florida, A War of Words Over Solar’s Future

While a proposed amendment would allow power purchase agreements in the state, utility-backed opponents have their own plan

A group called Floridians for Solar Choice is collecting signatures for a ballot measure in 2016 that would expand solar options for state residents.

Florida voters are facing competing petition drives over the future of residential solar electricity, and the contest has touched off a PR kerfuffle between opposing camps.

Floridians for Solar Choice is collecting signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit solar power purchase agreements (PAA) in the state for the first time. Consumers for Smart Solar says its amendment would give Floridians the constitutional right to own and lease solar panels — a right the group’s critics say state residents already have.

If the groups can collect enough signatures, the measures would be on the 2016 ballot — and in a presidential election year, turnout is likely to be very high. In the meantime, Floridians can look forward to a windy political season.

One way of keeping score, an article in the Orlando Weekly suggests, is to keep track of where the two groups are getting the money to run their campaigns.

Recent campaign finance reports show that nearly $300,000 of the $799,045 taken in by Consumers for Smart Solar has come directly from some of the state’s largest utilities, including Duke Energy, Florida Power and Light, Gulf Power Company, and Tampa Electric, the report said. An additional $125,000 was donated by the Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition, run by someone with links to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Another $100,000 came from an association supported by the Koch brothers, wealthy conservative activists.

Floridians for Solar Choice has raised about the same amount of money — a total of $759,078 — but most of it has come from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, an arm of a non-partisan, non-profit group advocating clean energy options. The Orlando Weekly report said the group is tied to billionaire Tom Steyer, a California environmentalist and philanthropist.

Who you can buy power from

At the heart of the dispute is who gets the right to sell electricity to state residents. Under increasingly common PPAs in other states, a homeowner agrees to buy electricity from a third party — a company such as SolarCity, for example — that installs and owns the panels. In Florida, state law currently does not permit state residents to buy power from anyone other than an electric utility, so PPAs are illegal.

Third-party ownership has been a key factor in the steady increase in installed solar capacity around the country. A Greentech Media report earlier this year said that 72% of all residential solar capacity installed in 2014 was owned by someone other than the homeowner.

“Florida is one of only four states where the law expressly prohibits a third party to come and sell or even give away a single kilowatt hour of energy,” Susan Glickman, the Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said by telephone. “Let’s just say you’re a landlord and you put solar up and include it in the rent. You can’t do that, either.”

In a move supported by the state’s utilities, Florida’s Public Service Commission late last year voted to reduce energy-efficiency goals on the grounds they were not cost-effective. Glickman said that’s part of a longstanding pattern in the state.

Florida is ranked third in the nation for rooftop solar potential by the Solar Energy Industries Association but 13th for cumulative installed capacity. The association says that the state’s energy policies “lag behind many other states in the nation.” In addition to barring power purchase agreements, Florida also has no renewable portfolio standard, a state policy elsewhere that requires utilities to provide a certain percentage of power from renewable sources.

“The utilities historically have gotten everything they want,” she said. “We don’t have energy efficiency. We don’t have solar. They’re building power plants. They’re planning on adding another 10,500 megawatts of new power and it’s big gas plants, they’re looking to build a big gas pipeline. It’s all about putting major assets into the rate base.

“We don’t do smart utility planning,” she added. “But what we do do is whatever it is the utilities deem is going to make them the most money, which in this case is to put major assets on the rate base that the citizens of Florida will be paying off for decades.”

Attacking out-of-state interests

For its part, Consumers for Smart Solar is waging a war of insinuation. It claims the amendment opening up the Florida solar market is “designed to benefit out-of-state solar companies” and would leave consumers “vulnerable to fraud and abuse.” The plan would prohibit consumer protection regulations and ultimately mean higher utility costs for non-solar homeowners, the group’s website says.

“Built to benefit the biggest solar companies, the Shady Solar Amendment lets out-of-state corporations skirt consumer protection laws and play by their own rules, paving the way to predatory business practices and fraud,” the website says.

The group professes to back solar energy, and adds: “Moreover, we don’t think Floridians should have to sacrifice basic consumer protections just to enjoy greater access to solar energy. That’s why we created the Smart Solar Amendment.”

Glickman said the group’s campaign amounts to an effort to confuse Floridians, not advance solar energy.

“And why can they do that?” she asked. “Because utilities have all the money in the world.”

To date, Floridians for Solar Choice has collected 145,650 validated signatures, less than one-quarter of the 683,000 needed to put the amendment on next year’s ballot. Consumers for Smart Solar, she said, has gathered 18,786 signatures. The groups have until February 1.

The state Supreme Court must still rule on the wording of the Solar Choice amendment in what Glickman said is a routine review. The ruling is expected soon, and Glickman said she was optimistic that the court would give the group a green light.

Consumers for Smart Solar lists no telephone number.

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