Climate

Florida Supreme Court Clears Hurdle Out Of The Way For Solar Power To Flourish

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Raoux

In this Wednesday, May 13, 2015 photo, Henry Plange, a power generation engineer, checks temperatures of solar panels at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center, in Merritt Island, Fla. Industry experts rank Florida third in the nation in rooftop solar energy potential but 13th in the amount of solar energy generated.

Solar power could soon be flourishing the Sunshine State. Thursday morning the Florida Supreme Court approved an initiative for the 2016 ballot that would allow Floridians to vote to reduce the state’s restrictions on rooftop solar power.

Although solar is growing exponentially nationwide, it has not thrived in Florida. Florida is one of a handful of states that prohibit residents from purchasing electricity from a source other than an electric utility. This has locked out third-party solar rooftop companies, such as SolarCity and SunRun, which install rooftop solar panels on a customer’s property at no cost and sell solar-generated power to that customer at a reduced electric rate.

As ThinkProgress previously reported, a coalition of solar advocates called Floridians for Solar Choice has been leading the effort to change this policy by pursuing a ballot initiative to permit third-party financing for rooftop solar by private companies. To get the initiative on the ballot, Florida required the coalition to first collect 68,314 voter signatures and then have the initiative language approved by the state Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the ballot initiative cleared this major hurdle when the Florida Supreme Court approved the “Solar Choice Amendment” for the November 2016 ballot. Advocates now have to collect the requisite 683,149 signatures to ensure the initiative goes on the ballot. It will then have to pass with 60 percent of the vote in 2016.

Florida’s Attorney General, Pam Bondi, has been an active opponent of these efforts, arguing against it to the state Supreme Court. In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Bondi called for the ballot initiative to be rejected due to misleading language. “Because local solar energy already exists in Florida, the summary misleads by suggesting the existence of ‘barriers’ and implying that the Amendment is necessary to allow local solar energy,” she stated. However, according to Floridians for Solar Choice’s website, current law “prohibits customer choice and blocks the growth of this abundant, clean homegrown energy source.” The measure is aimed at “expanding solar choice by allowing all customers the option to power their homes or businesses with solar.”

Over the past few months, Bondi has joined the state’s utility companies to push for a rival ballot initiative. Consumers for Smart Solar has focused on discrediting the Floridians for Solar Choice initiative, and says their goal is to “[establish] the right to solar in Florida’s constitution.” The group also claims that the Solar Choice initiative is “shady” and privileges solar companies. Fossil fuel funded organizations like the National Black Chamber of Commerce have “decried the Shady Solar Amendment as misleading.” Critics of the rival initiative have noted that Floridians already have the right to install solar panels, and that efforts to stall third party financing are intended to protect the utility companies’ interests.

Building the state’s renewable energy sector will be important to facilitate compliance with the Clean Power Plan, which requires Florida to reduce its emissions from fossil fuel power plants by 25% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. According to analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Florida could meet its CPP 2030 goal by increasing renewable energy generation to 10 percent of the state’s electricity mix. The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks Florida as third in the nation for rooftop photovoltaic potential and the National Renewable Energy Lab estimated that the rooftop solar panels in the state could generate between 5 and 6 kWh per square meter installed per day.

Following the release of the Clean Power Plan, the Florida Public Service Commission — the state body responsible for regulating electricity — issued a news release listing the state’s carbon pollution reductions since 2008 and touting the 530 MW of renewable generation that has been added since 2008. This includes rooftop solar, utility-scale projects, and power-purchase agreements. But 530 MW of renewable generation pales in comparison to estimates of Florida’s potential if third party financing was available. In fact, back in 2008, the Florida PSC released a report saying that rooftop solar alone had the potential to generate nearly 100 times that amount.

Attorney General Bondi is also fighting the Clean Power Plan, joining 14 other attorneys general in filing with the DC Circuit for a stay of the rule’s compliance deadlines. Bondi joined them in arguing that EPA’s rule must be stopped because it would cause “irreparable harm” to the states. The Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity praised Bondi for her participation in the coalition, calling the Clean Power Plan requirements “egregious and unattainable.”

But state polling indicates that both the Solar Choice amendment and the Clean Power Plan are popular among Florida voters. According to a survey conducted by the Republican firm North Star Opinion Research, 74 percent of Florida voters say they support the Solar Choice ballot proposal. And recent polling by Public Policy Polling found that 63 percent of Florida voters say they support the Clean Power Plan.

As a result, Florida is in the midst of a paradoxical fight to limit its ability to increase renewable energy deployment and decrease carbon pollution in accordance with the Clean Power Plan. On the one hand, Bondi and the utility companies argue against renewable energy that cuts pollution and saves money on homeowners’ power bills. On the other hand, Bondi argues that cutting pollution could irreparably harm the state.

As of Thursday morning, Florida voters cleared a hurdle to be able to decide for themselves in 2016.

Erin Auel is a special assistant for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

UPDATE

This post was updated to reflect the correct required number of signatures to advance the measure to the Supreme Court for review.

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