If you really want to know what the controversy is about concering that solar power ballot question in Florida, all you really have to know is that it is backed by Florida’s principal utility companies — Florida Light & Power and Duke Energy. It also has the support of other heavyweights in the utility sector such as ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Gulf Power. Together, they have poured more than $21 million into the campaign to get Florida voters to approve an amendment to the state’s constitution.
The proposed ballot question in entitled “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.” Who could possibly object to consumers having a choice when it comes to solar power? It’s a no brainer, right? Here’s the essence of the ballot question:
(a) ESTABLISHMENT OF CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT. Electricity consumers have the right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.
(b) RETENTION OF STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTAL ABILITIES. State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure that consumers 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.
Nothing scary there. And yet, a justice of the Florida Supreme Court, which had to approve the ballot question before it was submitted to the voters, declared the amendment is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” How could that be?
First and foremost, according to Curtis Silver writing for Forbes, the amendment would guarantee utility companies the power to add special assessments to the utility bills of their customers who install rooftop solar systems. In effect, the utilities will have the constitutional right to punish people for choosing solar power. How’s that for freedom of choice, huh?
Second, Silver says, it would mean consumers could only lease rooftop solar systems through their local utility, not through a third party power purchase agreement, which is how the majority of residential solar leases work.
On October 18, the Miami Herald released a recording of a utility industry consultant bragging about how the language of the ballot question is carefully crafted to bamboozle the voters. It says one thing but means something totally different. In the recording, Sal Nuzzo, a vice president of the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, called the amendment “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”
He told a conference of industry executives on October 8, “As you guys look at policy in your state, or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: Solar polls very well.” Nunzio continued, “To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums — if that’s the direction you want to take — use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”
The comments support claims made by opponents to Amendment 1 that the utility-backed political committee, Consumers for Smart Solar, was formed to give voters with the wrong impression. Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar, contradicted Nuzzo’s claims and told the Miami Herald that her group “did not engage or hire or ask JMI to do research regarding the effort.”
Utility companies are terrified that their century old monopoly over electric power may be coming to an end. Punitive monthly assessments against solar customers have been bitterly opposed in Arizona and Nevada. The assessments reduce or eliminate the economic benefits people get when they decide to install rooftop solar. After the Nevada PUC approved regressive fees on rooftop solar systems, the residential solar market collapsed as companies like SolarCity shuttered their offices, laid off employees, and left the state.
Are the Florida utility companies truly interested in promoting residential solar or are they cynically trying to protect themselves from inroads by new technology? Does anyone honestly think the companies spent $21,000,000 of their own money for the good of their customers?
Thanks but no thanks, utility industry. If you live in Florida, protect your right to solar power by voting No on Amendment 1.