Editorials

A bright citizen initiative to energenize solar energy in Florida

Since the state's public utilities hold such a powerful influence in Tallahassee, the best available avenue for citizens to rise up against that political might is forcing Florida to embrace an important aspect of solar power.

A petition drive to place a constitutional amendment on renewable energy before voters in 2016 takes center stage in what should be a common sense approach to state policy. Individuals and businesses should be allowed to sell surplus solar power to neighbors, thus placing a major incentive onto the Sunshine State's sadly lacking energy vision. The initiative seeks to legalize consumer to consumer sales of power, currently banned by state law.

A broad-based coalition of historically opposition organizations has united behind this petition drive. Republicans, Democrats, tea party activists, businesses, environmentalists and others joined hands under the banner of a group called Floridians for Solar Choice. Florida's Supreme Court approved the petition drive in December, and now organizers are on the march to sign up 683,149 registered voters by Feb. 1, 2016, to put the question on the ballot.

This free market measure would make solar power installation more affordable as homeowners and businesses offset some of the cost by selling energy to nearby buildings. The currently stagnant market for solar energy is handcuffed by state law that only allows utilities to sell electricity to consumers. Some other states do not subscribe to the monopoly power that utilities hold and permit the sale of power from one building to another.

The very idea is anathema to Florida utilities, upset by the potential for anything that impinges on their business model. But competition in the energy market benefits consumers -- and should appeal to free market advocates, especially the Republicans who dominate both houses of the Legislature and the governor's mansion.

Renewable energy has been a hot topic for years, and the time is ripe for this state to reject utility arguments that solar power is too expensive and -- in the Sunshine State -- there are too many clouds to make this efficient. Those companies also argue that if too many customers convert to solar energy, costs will rise to traditional ratepayers in the form of power line maintenance and power plant construction.

Hogwash. The citizen initiative includes limitations, allowing only the sale of two megawatts of power to customers who must be on the same or adjacent property as the solar array. That these rooftop clean energy sources would be competition for the big utilities is a red herring argument -- unless, suddenly, large numbers of homeowners and businesses invested in this fairly expensive equipment.

How powerful are the state's four largest utilities, which includes Flower Power & Light, the biggest and Manatee County's primary power supplier? Between 2004 and 2012, those companies contributed more than $18 million to political candidates and parties, according to a report by Integrity Florida, a government watchdog organization. The big four also spent more than $12.5 million on lobbyists from 2007 and 2013. That spending packs a wallop in Tallahassee, as also witnessed by the compliant Public Service Commission, a veritable lapdog to utility requests even though the panel is charged with regulating the industry.

Florida should be promoting solar energy. To that end, St. Petersburg GOP state Sen. Jeff Brandes introduced legislation this week that would reduce the real estate or property tax that businesses currently pay for the installation of solar power systems, on par with residential tax breaks. This is a smart measure that follows the growing trend toward less reliance on coal, natural gas and nuclear power for our power. Renewable energy is the wave of the future.

Should a petition addressing the constitutional amendment come your way, we recommend a signature. Floridians deserve a vote on this.

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