Florida voters could see a question on next year’s November ballot to remove a barrier to solar power in the Sunshine State. This is a wonderful opportunity to remove Florida as one of only four states that expressly prohibits the sale of solar power to customers by anyone other than their utility company. This means Florida families and businesses can independently access and purchase electricity through solar power purchase agreements (PPAs), a rapidly growing national trend and a major driver of rooftop solar production.
The proposed amendment is sponsored by a grass-roots and diverse coalition of conservative, libertarian, business, environmental, religious and other stakeholders known as Floridians for Solar Choice. It specifically allows the supply of solar-generated electricity directly to a customer under a thoughtful regulatory structure that is “in the interest of public health, safety and welfare” — and that doesn’t have the effect of prohibiting these third-party non-utility sales.
The solar-power providers would still have to comply with all of the state’s fair-business and consumer-protection laws, and with existing Florida law (Section 163.04) that sets standards for, and forbids regulations that prohibit, renewable energy devices. The truth is, rather than remove existing consumer protections, the Solar Choice initiative protects consumers with a low-cost option to buy solar power not currently available to them.
Florida, unfortunately, lags far behind less-sunny states such as New Jersey and New York, where third-party solar providers offer customers access to low-cost solar power without a big up-front investment. The solar provider sells electricity directly to a homeowner or business at a fixed rate for a fixed time period — allowing customers to lock-in long term savings. Florida’s lack of access to third-party arrangements, where a solar provider covers the investment in solar panels, is a major barrier to solar here, particularly for lower-income consumers.
Given the state Legislature’s unwillingness to enact 21st-century energy policy, Floridians for Solar Choice is an excellent example of citizen-led democracy, which is taking an initiative to the people to allow the sale of solar power directly to consumers by someone other than your power company.
A ballot initiative that garners more than 68,314 verified signatures must be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court to ensure that it covers only one subject and that the title and summary are not misleading to voters. The proposed solar-choice amendment has met this threshold, and the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Sept. 1.
Opponents of the initiative —the state’s biggest power companies, including FPL — acknowledge the benefits of solar energy, but want to protect their profitable monopolies. Their arguments, now joined by Attorney General Pam Bondi, on closer inspection, are based on a gross misreading of the petition language and of the court’s past decisions.
They wrongly suggest the title and summary are misleading because state and local governments won’t be able to regulate solar providers. Not true. They allege non-solar customers bear costs for solar customers. Not true. Similarly, they argue the petition covers more than one subject because it allows solar PPAs and prohibits state and local governments from blocking the purpose of the amendment. Also not true.
The specific argument that solar customers raise costs for non-solar customers is unsupported. Many studies show solar customers, and solar providers, more than cover the costs of being connected to the electric grid. Either way, the larger policy debate extends beyond the court’s review of the legal technicalities of the proposed amendment language.
Still, there is a clear “oneness of purpose” in the component parts of the amendment by both allowing third-party sales of solar and protecting against state or local governments from unreasonably blocking its purpose. Given the recent experience at the Florida Legislature with the implementation of Amendment 1 to preserve fragile lands, supporters of the solar-choice petition are prudent in looking to reduce chances that the purpose of the initiative will be hijacked after passage.
Time and again, polls have shown strong support for solar power in the Sunshine State. It’s time to let voters decide whether consumers should be free to harness the power of the sun and have more access to rooftop solar.
Ennis Leon Jacobs Jr. is a former chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Consumer Affairs Committee and former commissioner and former chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission.