Measure in Florida That Claims to Back Solar Power May Discourage It

Source: By JOHN SCHWARTZ, New York Times • Posted: Friday, October 28, 2016

Technicians install a solar panel system on a home in Miami on Wednesday. Scott McIntyre for The New York Times 

Florida’s biggest electric utility companies are backing a proposed constitutional amendment that, the campaign says, “promotes solar in the Sunshine State.” Not so: If Florida voters approve the ballot measure, it could pave the way for utilities to raise fees on solar customers and cast a heavy cloud over the future of rooftop solar energy in Florida.

Utilities and their allies have spent more than $20 million on the campaign, including inescapable broadcast ads and mass direct mailings. While there is no reliable polling on the measure, unscientific surveys suggest that the amendment can win. Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, said, “It has a decent shot at passing — because the language is deceptive.”

If approved Nov. 8, the measure would take immediate effect. As a constitutional amendment, it needs to pass with at least 60 percent of the vote to be enacted.

Laura Waller during a solar installation in Miami. A ballot measure in Florida could pave the way for utilities to raise fees on solar customers. Scott McIntyre for The New York Times 

The amendment’s supporters say that it will not retard the expansion of solar power, but opponents are adamant that it will. Former Vice President Al Gore criticized it as a “phony baloney” effort, and while a majority of the Florida Supreme Court approved the language of the amendment, the dissenters blasted the law as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The state’s newspapers have overwhelmingly opposed the measure, as have most unions, environmental groups, solar energy suppliers and Jimmy Buffett.

It has the support of groups like the 60 Plus Association, a conservative advocacy group, and several business alliances.

The hidden intent of the proposal was not widely understood until The Miami Herald obtained audio of an expert at a conservative Florida think tank affiliated with one of the utilities. In the audio, which the Herald obtained from the Center for Media and Democracy, an investigative group, the expert praised what he called the “incredibly savvy maneuver” of using the “language of promoting solar” to gain support for the measure. He called it “political jiu-jitsu.”

That revelation came too late for Barbara Waks, a retiree who had already mailed in her early-voting ballot when the Herald story appeared. She said that she thought she was supporting renewable energy.

“I felt so stupid,” she said. “I’m familiar with the political arena and the garbage that exists, but this is beyond the pale.” She has asked whether she can change her vote(she can’t), and wants the initiative withdrawn (it won’t be).

The audio from the think tank expert, Sal Nuzzo of the James Madison Institute, put “blood in the water,” said Stephen Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which opposes the amendment. “They thought they were going to pull a fast one, but this thing is now completely blowing up in their faces.”

The first part of the amendment guarantees the right of Floridians to generate their own electricity — a right that already exists under the law.

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What Floridians do not yet have is the right to have solar installed by a third-party company like Elon Musk’s Solar City. The companies have helped create the solar boom by smoothing the way for consumers to take advantage of a policy known as net metering, which involves selling excess electricity generated by the panels back to the utilities. The new law will not make that any easier, and it would allow regulators to approve rate increases on solar owners. That would probably make rooftop panels much less appealing economically.

Screven Watson, a board member of Consumers for Smart Solar, the proposal’s official sponsor, said that Amendment 1 is misunderstood. “There’s a lot of myths,” he said. Mr. Watson, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said that the measure ensures consumer fairness and clarifies public policy.

He said the right to generate your own power should be part of the state’s Constitution, and that the law is intended to protect people who do not have solar panels on their homes from subsidizing those who can afford them.

Mr. Watson said he had never spoken to Mr. Nuzzo, the indiscreet official from the James Madison Institute. “I wouldn’t know this gentleman if he came in and bought me a beer, patted me on the head or spit on me,” he said.

A solar roof system at Miami’s Palmetto Bay Village Hall. The ballot measure’s supporters say that it will not retard the expansion of solar power, but opponents are adamant that it will. Scott McIntyre for The New York Times 

After Mr. Nuzzo’s comments were reported, the website of the initiative’s sponsors deleted references to the James Madison Institute.

The institute’s president, Bob McClure, said in a statement that his group “has never worked with or received funding from Consumers for Smart Solar,” and that Mr. Nuzzo, the vice president for policy, “misspoke.”

The fracas in Florida is part of a backlash against solar power in many states, said Barry Goldwater Jr., a former member of Congress from Arizona and chairman of the group Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed. “Unfortunately, they don’t like competition,” he said.

Politically connected players, he said, will try to protect their parochial interests, but the boom in renewable energy is unstoppable. “It’s coming, and these utilities better move over, or they’re going to get run over,” he said.

Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Coalition, a Tea Party-oriented environmental group, said voters should reject the amendment. Utilities, she said, are state-granted monopolies that violate free-market principles, but “they want to keep utility consumers shackled to them and deny energy freedom and choice.”