Herald recommends no vote on Florida's Amendment 1, a solar energy initiative pushed by utilities

Workers move a solar panel into place at FPL's Manatee Solar Energy Center.
Workers move a solar panel into place at FPL's Manatee Solar Energy Center. jajones1@bradenton.com

When waging a political campaign to gain some sort of advantage, truth in advertising ranks as a pesky hindrance to achieving the goal. In this case, witness the misleading epithet that the powerful utility industry conceived to peddle Amendment 1: Consumers for Smart Solar. Should there be truth in advertising on this, an accurate campaign title would be: Utilities for a Stronger Monopoly on Power.

The deceptive title convinced thousands of Floridians to sign petitions circulated in a campaign underwritten by the energy and utility companies, thus earning a place on the November ballot.

The complete ballot title reads: “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.” This red herring basically attempts to enshrine in Florida’s Constitution existing laws on solar energy, including the right of residents to own or lease solar energy panels and other equipment . So what’s the end game here? The control of solar power production.

The pivotal issue revolves around the third-party sale of electricity, by which owners of solar-equipped homes or businesses sell excess energy to neighbors. Or a solar company installs panels on a home, retains ownership and then sells the power generated by the equipment. The likelihood? Cheaper electricity than sold by utilities.

This is legal in many states, but would require a change in the law in Florida.

The electric utilities want to enshrine the status quo into the Constitution. That would thwart efforts by an organization called Floridians for Solar Choice, which launched a citizens’ initiative for an amendment that would deregulate the solar energy market and allow third-party sales. That bid failed, however, when the group could not come up with enough petition signatures to get on this year’s ballot.

Three Florida Supreme Court justices expressed doubts about the Amendment 1 language, but by a 4-3 ruling the court allowed the measure on the ballot. However, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote this in the dissenting opinion: “Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware. Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment ... actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo.”

The amendment’s ballot summary puts a glowing spin on the measure, beginning with this: “This amendment establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.”

While state law already allows this, the key phrase in the summary — “for their own use” — reads like a ban on third-party sales. That would stifle the free market.

Amendment opponents claim utilities would gain the right to put surcharges on solar customers to connect to the power grid, thus making solar more expensive and even suppressing the market. Power companies contend this only makes solar homes and businesses pay their fair share of grid upkeep since they are connected. The measure addresses this: “State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumerse who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”

As we have previously stated, Florida Power & Light, the primary power source for Manatee County, holds an impressive record of astute investments, low consumer bills and diligent customer service. The utility giant is a major solar power generator nationally, and massive solar array in Parrish will begin producing power in December.

In a meeting with the Herald Editorial Board last year, FPL defended utility-scale solar power as the most economic method, costing 50 percent less than rooftop panels. “... it is increasingly difficult to justify the subsidization of small-scale installations simply because they deliver solar energy,” FPL maintains.

Reading between the lines, solar customers connected to FPL’s grid should expect surcharges, though the company has stated no decision has been made.

Amendment 4, which voters approved in August, will provide tax exemptions to make it less costly to install solar panels. The measure holds other consumer-friendly provisions. Amendment 1 focuses on utility-friendly elements in a deceptive manner.

The Bradenton Herald Editorial Board recommends a no vote on Amendment 1.