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A majority of voters support Florida’s deceptive solar initiative

That’s not necessarily a good thing for renewable energy in the state.

CREDIT: ISTOCK/SMILEUS
CREDIT: ISTOCK/SMILEUS

A new Florida Chamber of Commerce poll shows that a majority of voters in the Sunshine state support a solar initiative on the ballot this November — but that’s not exactly reassuring news for environmentalists and proponents of renewable energy.

The poll found that 66 percent of voters would vote yes on Initiative 1, titled, “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.” The initiative is sponsored by state utilities, as well as groups tied to the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers — and environmental groups argue that it would neither increase consumer rights nor their choices with regards to renewable energy.

The initiative would effectively prohibit Floridians from leasing solar panels, since it would prohibit them from selling their electricity to third parties. That model — where a company retains ownership of the solar panel but sells homeowners the electricity it produces at a lower rate — has been used by companies like SolarCity to great success in states like California, where solar energy has increased rapidly in recent years. Advocates argue that it helps make solar power more affordable to the average consumer, because it does away with the upfront costs of solar panels and installation.

Environmental groups challenged the initiative in court, arguing that the Florida Supreme Court should not allow it on the ballot in November. If passed, it “would be a constitutional endorsement of the idea that rooftop solar users should pay higher utility bills than other customers,” the groups argued, noting that rooftop solar users could pay up to twice as much for electricity purchased from utilities as other consumers. In April, the court denied the groups’ request, allowing the initiative to be included on the November ballot.

In her dissent, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente warned pro-solar voters to be wary of the initiative’s confusing language, calling it a proposed constitutional amendment that “[masquerades] as a pro-solar energy initiative” while “actually [seeking] to constitutionalize the status quo.”

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In August, Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a different solar initiative, this one backed by a bipartisan effort in the state legislature, which removed property taxes for solar equipment.

Despite having some of the highest potential for solar power in the country, Florida’s policies and regulations create significant barriers to the amount of solar power actually distributed to consumers — it does not have a renewable portfolio standard, for instance, and does not allow consumers to purchase solar power from a third party. If Amendment 1 passes, it would constitutionally entrench the prohibition on third party power purchases, placing Florida even further behind in renewable energy generation.