Climate

Power struggle

Florida voters may be tricked into derailing solar energy

Florida voters may be tricked into derailing solar energy

Floridians who think they’re voting in November to promote the spread of solar panels may actually derail it, thanks to a deceptively worded ballot measure that would change the Sunshine State’s constitution.

Amendment 1 contains language that sounds supportive of solar power but could lead to Florida’s power utilities levying fees on solar users, even when they aren’t pulling power off the grid, and prevent them from earning credit for feeding unused solar power back onto it.

The “yes” vote for the proposed amendment to the state constitution is polling around 66 percent, and its opponents are being outspent 10-to-1. Backed by the four major local power utilities, FPL, Duke Energy, TECO, and Gulf Power, which have poured in $21 million to date, the amendment is on its way to becoming the most expensive ballot measure in Florida history.

And yet the measure, titled “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” has been opposed by the editorial boards of nearly every major Florida newspaper and was barely upheld 4-3 by the state Supreme Court. One dissenting judge called it a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that fails — deliberately — the legal requirement to state its pro-utility purpose “clearly and unambiguously.”

Amendment 1 is also distressing some Floridians who mailed in absentee ballots believing “yes” meant yes to more solar. Solar makes up less than 1 percent of the state’s energy mix.

“I’m beside myself, I’m so furious,” said Aventura resident Barbara Waks, 84, who learned that she voted too late to take her ballot back. “I just sent in my ballot a day too soon. It’s altogether insane that they can get away with this.”

The ballot language even got by a lawyer, who voted yes and is now mortified. “I research everything: the judges, the down-ballot candidates. But since I’m an attorney, I didn’t think I’d need to research the amendments,” said the Broward County attorney, who asked not to be identified by name. “The language seemed very clear.”

The outrage meter peaked last week after a consultant linked to the utilities was recorded at an energy conference in Nashville saying that Amendment 1 was an “incredibly savvy” feat of “political jiu-jitsu” that will, if passed, “completely negate anything they [pro-solar interests] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”

After the audio surfaced, Consumers for Smart Solar deleted any mention of the consultant, Sal Nuzzo, and his group, the James Madison Institute, from its social media platforms.

Amendment 1 starts out sounding innocuous enough, affirming Floridians’ rights “to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use” and government protection for their “consumer rights and public health, safety, and welfare.”

The biggest uproar is over what comes next: State and local governments, for their part, can “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.”

In other words, the power industry wants the right to charge people for their connection to the grid even if they’re not drawing power, a move that would make solar panels a worse investment for consumers.

“This is about them holding their monopoly power,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “What this does is lock in the status quo.”

Amendment 1 backers reject any suggestion that it’s deceptive or meant to derail Florida’s adoption of solar power. Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar, the utility-funded group behind the amendment, said in a statement that it guarantees fair treatment for all of Florida’s power customers.

“Amendment 1 does not increase rates or fees on solar consumers nor does it mandate government to increase rates or fees on solar consumers,” she said.

Critics say the pro-consumer language is misleading because the rights and safeguards it spells out already exist under state law, and don’t require passage of this amendment to create them. They say the subsidy argument is also false because everyone on the grid already pays a connection fee whether they’re using power at any given time or not.

Moncrief of Florida Conservation Voters says the utilities are laying the groundwork to kill the financial incentives for any solar-power development they don’t control and discourage would-be solar adopters and community-based entrepreneurs.

Solar isn’t cheap: It can cost as much as $50,000 to install a set of photovoltaic panels on a single rooftop. To recoup those costs, families and businesses are counting on fair compensation for the power they feed back onto the grid.

In Florida, they’re compensated under an arrangement called “net metering,” in which the utilities are required by law to sell solar panels to customers who want them — and to buy back, at market rates, any excess energy those customers generate.

Moncrief says the utilities want out from under net metering, and will use Amendment 1 to attempt to redefine the practice out of existence as an unconstitutional subsidy.

In two other sun-drenched states, Arizona and Nevada, solar-power advocates say utilities have succeeded in undermining solar’s progress. Elon Musk’s SolarCity sued an Arizona utility, for example, that adopted a so-called “demand charge” for solar households, after which solar lease applications dropped by 96 percent.

Opponents believe they have truth and momentum, if not money, on their side heading toward Election Day Nov. 8. In addition to the newspaper editorials, public figures like singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, a favorite Florida son, and “Saturday Night Live” cast member Cecily Strong are among the public figures coming forward to urge people to vote “no.”

The vote must pass with 60 percent for the Florida constitution to be amended. “We think we have a good chance of defeating it,” says Moncrief. “More and more people are angry about this. Floridians do not like to be fooled.”

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