Dueling over the sun
Florida voters could face competing solar power amendments in November 2016.
Florida voters could face competing solar power amendments next November. What happens if both pass?
More solar power is coming to Florida. Two constitutional amendments vying for ballot status next November aim to shape how it arrives - and who profits.
Currently, state law allows only utilities to sell electricity to consumers in Florida. That means those who choose to install photovoltaic cells on their rooftops essentially sell the electricity to their utility company at the same price the utility charges for power - and then buy it back. To the degree that their solar-generated power offsets their overall consumption, they realize savings in their electric bills.
The state's utilities have added solar capacity via large-scale solar farms, but slowly, focusing more on expanding generating capacity via natural-gas fired power plants.
Meanwhile, rebates, energy efficiency goals and increases in the efficiency of solar cells and storage batteries have created incentives for consumers to install rooftop systems.
Late last year, the state's utilities went before the state's Public Service Commission, claiming that rooftop solar and solar rebates aren't cost-effective. The state's Public Service Commission agreed, voting to cut energy-efficiency goals for utility companies and to allow a rebate program to expire at the end of 2015.
That decision led, in succession, to two proposed constitutional amendments. One would disrupt, to some degree, the current regulatory model that gives utilities a monopoly on power generation. The other essentially leaves that model intact.
The two amendments, while rivals, aren't mutually exclusive. If voters pass both in 2016, the issue would land in state court, where a judge could rule in favor of the one that had received more votes.
The Solar Initiatives
Floridians for Solar Choice
In early 2015, a political action committee called Floridians for Solar Choice launched a campaign to put a constitutional amendment on the Florida ballot in November 2016 that would limit government regulation of solar power generation.
"We knew that if we didn't do something, the solar industry would be set back 10 years in Florida," says Stephen Smith, a founding member of Floridians for Solar Choice. "Solar power is a transformative technology, and we're unleashing it in the Sunshine State."
The proposed "Solar Choice" amendment would allow non-utility, third-party electricity suppliers to sell solar power directly to customers.
A homeowner, for example, could contract with a non-utility company to install and maintain a rooftop solar system of up to 2 megawatts and then buy the power for a set period of time. The proposal also would allow businesses and homeowners to sell any excess energy they generated to other neighbors and tenants.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, a group that's helping fund the Solar Choice amendment, says utilities are only interested in keeping their energy monopolies intact, and that Florida is failing to realize solar's potential.
The alliance points out that Florida has the third-best potential for rooftop solar in the U.S. and the best solar resource east of the Mississippi. But 19 other states rank higher in the number of new solar installations, it says.
Backers of the Solar Choice amendment, who include Tea Party conservatives, argue that a competitive, free market is self-regulating. "If you don't want to put solar on your home, you don't have to. And if you don't like the terms of a contract, all you have to do is say 'no,' " Smith says.
He adds that the language is aimed at preventing utilities from imposing "discriminatory" rates against solar owners who enter into a power purchase agreement with a non-utility provider.
Tea Party activist Debbie Dooley, a supporter of Floridians for Solar choice, says "a free market is the ultimate in consumer protection. I find it hypocritical that conservatives are complaining that something is not going to be regulated."
Who Supports It?
Floridians for Solar Choice, a "Green Tea" coalition of solar advocates, evangelical Christians, Libertarians and retailers. Members include the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, Sierra Club Florida, the Christian Coalition of America, Libertarian Party of Florida and the Florida Retail Federation.
What Would It Do?
Amend Florida's Constitution to allow non-utility, third-party service providers to generate and sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power to customers on their own property or neighboring land. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that a single megawatt is enough to power 115 to 120 homes in Florida.
Florida is one of four states that prohibit consumers and businesses from buying solar power directly from anyone besides an electric utility. The amendment would shield solar companies from some state or local regulations and would ban "unfavorable" utility rates or fees for solar customers.
"Limits or Prevents Barriers to Local Solar Electricity Supply"
"Limits or prevents government- and electric utility-imposed barriers to supplying local solar electricity. Local solar electricity supply is the non-utility supply of solar generated electricity from a facility rated up to 2 megawatts to customers at the same or contiguous property as the facility. Barriers include government regulation of solar electricity suppliers' rates, service and territory, and unfavorable electric utility rates, charges, or terms of service imposed on local solar electricity customers.
"Energy freedom and liberty in choice is something that's inherently American and something that both sides of the political spectrum agree with."
-Tea Party activist Debbie Dooley, supporter, Floridians for Solar Choice amendment
"If every Walmart in the state of Florida decides to generate its own electricity and sell any surplus to adjacent users, there would certainly be an impact on the utilities. What consumer protections come with this new model? None."
-Democratic former state Rep. Dick Batchelor, co-chair, Consumers for Smart Solar
"I don't think retailers are interested in becoming mini-utilities. This is a way to reduce energy costs and hopefully pass those savings onto consumers. That's it."
-James Miller, spokesman, Florida Retail Federation
Consumers for Smart Solar
The state's utilities see the Solar Choice amendment, with its incentive for micro-competitors to supply power, as a threat both to their business model and a reliable electric system. In July, Consumers for Smart Solar, a group led by two former state lawmakers and a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, introduced the Consumers for Smart Solar amendment. It would write into the constitution the right of rooftop solar owners to generate electricity for their own use. And it would leave intact the current regulatory structure that gives the utilities a monopoly on power sales, however - unlike the Solar Choice amendment, it does not open the door to third-party electricity sales.
"Candidly," says Dick Batchelor, a Democratic former state legislator who's co-chairing the utility-backed campaign, "the purpose is to kill their amendment and to pass ours."
The utilities argue that the ultimate stakes are their ability to ensure reliable, affordable electricity, including a solar component. They point to data showing Florida at No. 10 in the nation for solar generation and No. 22 for the lowest monthly electric bills ($117.64, on average vs. $137.06 nationwide).
"When the costs of many things go up and up, FPL's rates have actually gone down," says FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski. He says the Solar Choice group is overly negative on the state's progress toward cleaner energy and suggests that lower-than-average electricity prices have made the cost savings of solar compared with conventional energy less appealing to Floridians.
"Hawaii has both the highest electric rates and the highest concentration of rooftop solar in the nation," he says.
Meanwhile, critics of the original solar initiative are raising concerns about its language. The measure states that third-party solar suppliers could be subject to "reasonable health, safety and welfare regulations," but not if those rules prove too expensive, according to critics.
"You could end up with a huge number of electric power-generating companies that are unregulated," says constitutional lawyer Barry Richard, a Greenberg Traurig shareholder who represented the utility companies before the state Supreme Court during oral arguments opposing the Solar Choice amendment. "I'm not aware of any other instance in law or regulatory authority where an industry's right to proceed trumps the public's health and safety because it would be too expensive."
Who Supports It?
Consumers for Smart Solar, a coalition funded by the Florida electric utility industry, also includes. The Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Florida Faith & Freedom Coalition and the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
What It Would Do
Make it a constitutional right for Floridians to have solar equipment installed and to generate electricity for their own use. It would guarantee the state's ability to protect non-solar customers from paying more than their fair share of grid maintenance costs.
"Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice"
"This amendment establishes a right under Florida's Constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that 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."
"We are guaranteeing that people have the right to buy and sell solar power. But this should not be interpreted so broadly as to either prohibit the government from ensuring the public's health and safety or forcing non-solar customers to underwrite solar."
-Barry Richard, attorney, Florida utility industry
Solar Choice backers "are trying to distract people from the fact that their amendment is confusing. Their amendment is not designed to promote solar in Florida for everyone. It's designed to benefit a certain segment of the industry."
-Mark Bubriski, spokesman, Florida Power & Light
"They're trying to gum up the system and confuse people. Their initiative doesn't effectively give people more solar or remove barriers to solar. It's just a ploy to maintain the status quo."
-Stephen Smith, executive director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy