Florida's battle for solar power heats up


Every election season, a funny thing happens – people come out of the woodwork to initiate the process of getting constitutional amendments on the ballot to address issues the Legislature hasn't touched. Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved, for instance, a measure to dedicate a certain amount of funding to land and water conservation measures. In previous years, constitutional amendments have been proposed to urge the state Legislature to draw fair districts (passed in 2010, though that battle is still being fought), and to legalize marijuana for medical use (failed in 2012, but we fully expect it to make a comeback).

The argument is that, since the state Legislature isn't getting the work done, advocates need to take critical causes straight to the people and enshrine them in the state Constitution. It's a tactic that doesn't sit well with everyone, since the Constitution isn't the place for common law making, but the reasoning advocates put forth for pursuing it for everything from legalization of medical marijuana to property tax reform is that the Legislature isn't doing its job.

This year's amendment battle is over solar power. Some advocates want to give businesses the power to generate and sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power to adjacent neighboring properties, thereby increasing the financial incentive to install solar power. Instead of increasing incentives for solar power in the state, the Legislature has been killing them – in 2014, the Public Service Commission reduced the state's energy-efficiency goals program and even ended the state's solar power rebate program for homeowners.

A group called Floridians for Solar Choice, an initiative of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, has been gathering signatures to get a measure to expand solar energy in the state on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. When the group took its ballot language before the Supreme Court, the state's largest utility companies teamed up with state Attorney General Pam Bondi to kill the effort before it gets anywhere near a voter. 

Bondi has asked the court to keep the measure off the ballot because it's confusing and could create regulatory problems – which is what she said when she unsuccessfully sued to keep medical marijuana off the ballot, too.

Another organization, Consumers for Smart Solar, is also launching an initiative for a solar-energy constitutional amendment. That group, which is being led by former state Rep. Dick Batchelor as well as a coalition of faith and community leaders, claims it wants an amendment that's more consumer-oriented. Their proposal would make it a right for "consumers to own or lease solar equipment on their property to generate electricity for their own use" and that those who do not do so should not be "required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do." Consumers for Smart Solar says the other group's amendment is "shady" because it benefits out-of-state solar companies and that it could result in higher costs for non-solar consumers. In a video posted to its website, called "A Tale of Two Amendments," the group says that "Big Solar Inc." is trying to profit off the consumer without making solar power more affordable for them. It's interesting to note, though, that some of the funders behind Consumers for Smart Solar are our utility companies. Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy and Gulf Power each donated $30,000 to the organization, according to campaign finance records, and Tampa Electric Company donated $25,000.

Should solar power be enshrined in the Constitution at all? Probably not, but advocates say they have no other choice than to push for it this way, and now consumers are left trying to figure out which solar amendment (and which organization) acts in their best interests. Which is what we are supposed to be electing policians to do. But when the politicians don't act (or even make things worse) ....

"If the political process in Tallahassee was functioning, we could do this through the Legislature," Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told the News Service of Florida recently. "But because of the dysfunction and because of the heavy influence that the utilities have across the street here in the Legislature, the only way to win this is to take it directly to the people."

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