Florida voters flip switch on utility-backed solar amendment


  • Photo by Global Panorama via Flickr
Backers tout Amendment 1 on the November ballot as a consumer protection measure, but critics and editorial boards malign the effort as an attempt to hinder the development of alternative fuels.

The proposal —- backed by Consumers for Smart Solar, with massive financial support from the state's energy giants —- would enshrine in the Florida Constitution existing rules regarding the use of solar energy by private property owners.

The proposal also includes a more contention provision, which states that those who haven't installed solar on their property "are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do."

Eric Silagy, president and CEO of Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light, strongly defended the proposal as the most "plainly written amendment I've seen in a long time."

"It's pretty clear," Silagy said. "I don't think there is anything sinister or nefarious…"

Instead, he said the proposal guarantees consumer protections that now could be usurped by local and state government rule changes.

Silagy said his company, the state's largest energy provider, joined the effort because of its support for solar in Florida. FPL has put up nearly $5.5 million for the Smart Solar effort.

"Here's want we have done. We've installed and operate more solar than anybody else in Florida as a company." Silagy said. "And I've got three solar plants that are under construction right now that are being built for less money than any plant in the history of the country. We're going to have one million solar panels operating by the end of the year. People should just read the amendment and make up their own minds."

It's the non-subsidization language, however, that has proponents of solar power up in arms.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the "carefully focused-group" ballot language could result in "discriminatory charges" against rooftop solar users.

"We have seen in their filings before the Florida Public Service Commission that what they intend to do is, if you are a customer and put solar on your house, and you're able to exchange that with the grid during the day and pull that power back at night, they don't like that. They want to penalize that, because when you're not buying power from them they're not making as much money," Smith said.

The Consumers for Smart Solar amendment was introduced last year after the group "Floridians for Solar Choice" launched a petition drive for a ballot initiative that sought to increase the use of solar power. The Floridians for Solar Choice initiative would ease regulations and allow businesses to generate and sell up to two megawatts of solar power to customers on the same or neighboring properties.

A driving force behind Floridians for Solar Choice —- which failed to obtain the requisite signatures to appear on the 2016 ballot —- was Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, whose financial backers are shielded from public record.

Critics contend Amendment 1 is aimed at maintaining each giant utility's hold on their part of the energy market in Florida.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, in a dissenting opinion on the ballot language, wrote that the proposal is "masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative."

Silagy dismissed such assertions.

"I know it's a popular story line to say this is just the utilities that are trying to protect a monopoly, but we don't have a monopoly on roof top solar, ground-mounted solar or anything else," Silagy said.

More than three-quarters of the $21 million raised by Consumers for Smart Solar thus far has come from the state's four largest utilities —- FPL, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co. and Gulf Power. Duke Energy contributed $5.7 million, Tampa Electric Co. provided $3 million, and Gulf Power gave $2.1 million, in addition to FPL's $5.5 million.

With ballots already in the mail, recent polls by the Polling Institute at Saint Leo University and the Florida Chamber of Commerce found that Floridians appear ready to approve the proposed amendment.

The Saint Leo survey found support for the proposal has grown from 77.3 percent in June to 84 percent in September, well above the 60 percent needed for passage.

Meanwhile, a poll conducted last month by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which supports the proposal, put support for Amendment 1 at 66 percent, with 16 percent opposed.

“Despite the lack of knowledge about what the amendment would actually do, it looks poised for success," said Frank Orlando, director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute and a political science instructor at the university. "The utility companies have spent the money to wage a very successful campaign presenting the issue to the public, while the pro alternative-energy groups have had a much more difficult time marshaling the opposition.”

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