Solar Measure Fails in the Sunshine State

Voters rejected a controversial measure that pit environmentalists versus electric utilities.
by | November 9, 2016
(AP/John Raoux)

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

The Sunshine State has a long-running dispute over solar power. In the latest dust-up, voters on Tuesday rejected a constitutional amendment pushed by electric utilities.

Voters split about evenly on Amendment 1, with 51 percent in favor and 49 percent against on early Wednesday morning. But that support fell short of the 60-percent threshold required for constitutional amendments to pass.

The proposal had two main components: It would have guaranteed Floridians the right to own or lease solar panels on their property, and it would have guaranteed that nonsolar customers "are not required to subsidize the costs" of grid access and maintenance for solar customers.

It was that last part that generated the most controversy.

Environmentalists and other opponents of Amendment 1 said it would have allowed utility companies to charge solar customers new fees. That would have been bad, they argued, because it could have been the first step in repealing "net metering," which allows solar power customers to sell their excess electricity to the grid and get credit for it on their bills. Getting rid of net metering, the opponents said, would have increased costs for solar customers and inhibited adoption.

"They are trying to fool you into amending your state Constitution in a way that gives them the authority to shut down net metering [and] kill the solar industry," former Vice President Al Gore told a crowd of Floridians in early October.

Electric utilities countered that solar customers are actually hurting their finances. Solar customers, they say, don't pay their fair share of the costs for grid maintenance because they buy less electricity. Utilities further argued that the subsidy prohibition in Amendment 1 would have protected consumers by preventing people who don’t get solar from paying higher rates than those who do.

Three local chapters of the Urban League, which backed the amendment, said that's especially important for people of color.

"Owing largely to its cost, low-income consumers and communities of color are seldom able to use rooftop solar and must rely on the grid for their energy needs. As more affluent consumers deploy rooftop solar, fewer nonsolar consumers are left to carry the costs of maintaining the grid," they said in a statement. "Florida Amendment 1 provides a mandate for regulators to mitigate the effects of regressive cost shifting."

The recent boom in solar panel installations, driven by friendly tax policies and increasingly cheaper materials, has prompted several states to re-evaluate their solar policies. Earlier this year, Vermont announced a plan to rework its subsidies. Last year, Nevada regulators concluded that net metering policies shifted $623 in costs per solar customer to other customers in the Las Vegas area. As a result, the state pulled the plug on its net metering policy last year, causing solar companies to flee the sun-baked state. Hawaii regulators also decided to end net metering, with similar effects.

Solar is still in its infancy in Florida: It trails less-sunny locales such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York in the amount of solar power it produces. Floridians for Solar Choice, which opposed the amendment, said the state needs to preserve net metering and other tax incentives to encourage people to buy solar panels.

They said the amendment's backers were trying to deceive voters by casting the amendment as a pro-solar measure. As evidence, they pointed to a leaked recording from a top official at a conservative think tank calling the amendment a "savvy maneuver" that used "political jiu-jitsu" to harness solar energy's popularity to gain voter support.

Solar power in Florida has long been contentious, and voters there have weighed in on solar policy several times. In August, voters overwhelmingly approved a separate measure, Amendment 4, that will give commercial property owners a tax break on their solar panels. Lawmakers placed the question on the ballot, and it had widespread support.

Floridians for Solar Choice, which is backed by the solar industry, started collecting signatures last year for their own ballot measure. It would have allowed property owners to install third-party solar panels and prohibited utilities from charging solar customers more or different kinds of fees for service than they charge nonsolar customers. The organizers didn't get enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot this year, but they could still use those signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot.

Florida is one of five states that expressly prohibit third-party leases, the type of sales arrangement that has made solar power so successful in other states. Under those agreements, an outside company installs solar panels at a discount and then sells the power they generate to the property owner over a term of many years. Florida’s prohibition means that only electric utilities can offer those arrangements.

Energy companies like Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy largely funded the campaign in support of Amendment 1, and raised more than $26 million, or 10 times what the opponents took in.

Screven Watson, a board member of Consumers for Smart Solar, said it's not hard to see why electric utilities backed the measure.

Utilities "have to live under government regulation. They have to live under those rules and do the right things and have their profits dictated by a quasi-governmental agency," he said. "Shouldn't other solar or wind or anything else that comes along have to live under the same set of rules for regulatory and consumer protection and price and rate issues as they are?"

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.