Fla.’s controversial rooftop amendment goes down

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 10, 2016

Florida voters rejected a controversial constitutional amendment for rooftop solar last night.

The defeat deals a blow to the state’s electric companies and associated trade groups, which dumped roughly $30 million directly and indirectly into the measure to see it through. It also sets up additional battles between Florida’s utilities and clean energy groups during next year’s legislative session.

The utilities traded on the popularity of solar by assuring customers that they could buy or lease rooftop panels for their homes or businesses. The amendment also could have paved the way for regulators to impose new fixed charges on residents wishing to place panels on their homes, however.

Solar advocates lined up hundreds of organizations, local governments and elected officials to oppose Amendment 1, arguing that it would open the door to utility fees on customers. They claimed that the utility-backed measure misleds voters by claiming it would expand entry into the solar market when it actually would create barriers.

A Tallahassee-based policy consultant caught bragging about the question’s seemingly pro-solar language in an audiotape acquired by the Miami Herald helped solidify such a claim.

The measure needed 60 percent of the vote to pass. It received roughly 51 percent.

Consumers for Smart Solar, the umbrella group formed in July 2015 to launch what became Amendment 1, touted that a majority of voters voted for the measure.

“While Amendment 1 fell short of the 60 percent threshold required for approval, it appears that more than half of all Florida voters … sent a message that they want solar done the right way, in a manner that protects customers and respects those who choose solar, as well as those who do not,” said Sarah Bascom, the campaign’s spokeswoman. “While we are disappointed with tonight’s outcome, we are pleased that a majority of Floridians recognize the importance of getting solar right.”

The group formed and crafted the ballot initiative as a response to another rooftop solar measure coming from a wide range of conservative and clean energy groups under the name Floridians for Solar Choice.

The political arm of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy was the chief financial backer of that proposed amendment. It passed the state Supreme Court but failed to secure enough signatures to reach the ballot.

Floridians for Solar Choice then changed course and put all of its muscle behind defeating the utilities.

“Today, as a coalition representing every part of Florida’s political spectrum, we defeated one of the most egregious and underhanded attempts at voter manipulation in this state’s history,” said Tory Perfetti, chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice and director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

SACE and the state’s electric companies, particularly Florida Power & Light Co., have been at war for years over renewable energy, nuclear power and electricity rates, among other things. The dueling constitutional amendments were the latest salvo in a long, bitter fight that only stands to get worse.

This is because the state’s electric companies and some lawmakers have hinted at a bill that would lower the amount that rooftop solar customers would receive if they sell excess electricity back to the grid (EnergyWire, July 12). Florida lets customers sell back excess power at a 1-to-1 retail rate.

“Florida is now at a crossroads: It can embrace rooftop solar as a secure power source or allow the current electricity monopolies to keep playing games with homeowners,” said Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Florida’s leaders should recognize that Floridians want access to solar and the well-paying jobs and economic benefits that solar offers.”

High stakes

Florida was one of three states where voters weighed in on energy policies last night.

In Arizona, a fiercely fought election for control of the state Corporation Commission may determine the fate of net metering in the desert Southwest. Voters in Nevada weighed whether to deregulate the state’s electricity market, in a move solar advocates say will spur innovation and adoption.

“Electricity is political. Solar is a big part of that; it is not surprising to me that it’s gotten political,” said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst with Glenrock Associates LLC.

With high stakes, however, placing such complicated issues in the hands of voters can be risky.

“You wonder what the outcome will be,” Patterson said. “That’s part of the issue. You can say this about a lot of things.”

With little money compared to Amendment 1’s backers, Floridians for Solar Choice used everything from social media and frequent news conferences to advertising on a solar-powered boat and a lawsuit to stop Amendment 1. More than two dozen editorial boards also came out against it, with some using the words “con,” “scam” and “deceitful” to describe it.

In a recent conference call with reporters, former Florida Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham (D) said he hopes Amendment 1’s defeat will pave the way for renewed conversation between the state’s electric companies and clean energy groups.

“I hope that this will be seen by the utilities as an opening of a new era of energy in Florida,” he said. “Rather than be dragged in it reluctantly, they ought to be in the leadership position.”