Fine Print: Florida’s ‘Pro-Solar’ Ballot Measure Is Anything But

Renewable power advocates lose their last-ditch appeal to get a utility-backed energy initiative off the Nov. 8 ballot.
Two men install a solar panel on a house roof. (Photo: Juan Silva/Getty Images)
Nov 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

A Florida ballot initiative backed by energy utilities and an array of right-leaning organizations could damage efforts to expand solar power in the state. Now an 11th-hour attempt by opponents to get it removed from the ballot has failed.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association and Floridians for Solar Choice to have the “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice” initiative, better known as Amendment 1, withdrawn for deceptive language. The groups have argued for months that despite its sunny-sounding title, the measure would elevate to the state’s constitution an effective near ban on net metering, a practice that helps ratepayers recoup the costs of the expensive equipment more quickly, or to contract with third-party providers to install and maintain solar arrays in return for the income from the extra current.

Dozens of Florida newspapers, conservation groups, local officials, and political groups, as well as solar industry groups, have urged voters to reject the measure.

Amendment 1 “opens the door for the monopoly utilities to go to the legislature or the public service commission and ask for fees to be imposed upon solar users, or to take some sort of negative stance or in another way hinder net metering,” said Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “If utilities can drive up the cost of solar by pushing up the fees or cutting off net metering, that makes solar less affordable and cuts off expansion.” Kimbis termed the ballot measure’s language deceptive, noting that the rights of the state to protect consumers, public health, and the safety and welfare of state residents, along with the right of consumers “to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use,” are already covered by various Florida statutes.

The Florida measure is just one of several efforts around the country to increase the costs of rooftop solar, which utilities fear will weaken their control of power distribution, Kimbis said. These include Nevada’s move in 2015 to reduce fees and rates paid to customers with solar arrays connected to the grid. In addition to changing the terms of agreements many ratepayers had counted on to help them pay for solar systems, the move prompted major solar equipment retailers to lay off hundreds of employees and exit the state.

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The group leading the campaign for Amendment 1, Consumers for Smart Solar, has denied that it has tried to mislead voters. “This is just political grandstanding,” Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar, wrote in an email. “Elevating this right to a constitutional right ensures that special interest groups (our opponents) who want solar in Florida done on their terms—without consumer protections and with unfair subsidies—won’t be able to avoid current laws that protect consumers.”

But in mid-October, the Miami Herald released a recording of a conference speech in which the policy director of a right-leaning think tank acknowledged that Amendment 1’s wording was meant to confuse voters. “Solar polls very well,” Sal Nuzzo of the James Madison Institute told the audience. “To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums—if that’s the direction you want to take—use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”

The Center for Media and Democracy, which supplied the recording to the Herald, has documented that the $24 million campaign to pass Amendment 1 was funded by power utilities, as well as groups with ties to right-wing political networks such as the Koch brothers’ operation. “Much of this happens in secret” in other states, said Nick Surgey, the group’s research director. “We’re benefiting here in part because campaign finance laws in Florida require disclosures of funding for this campaign.”

“The utilities collectively have been making a concerted effort recently to appear more conscious of the effects of climate change,” he added. “The encouraging thing is that the reason they’re having to mislead people is that solar polls so well.”