Fred Grimm

Florida’s solar amendment designed to mislead voters

Joseph Molina, Martin Cabrera and Luis Vergara, left to right, of Cutler Bay Solar Solutions install solar panels at a home in South Miami-Dade on Nov. 13.
Joseph Molina, Martin Cabrera and Luis Vergara, left to right, of Cutler Bay Solar Solutions install solar panels at a home in South Miami-Dade on Nov. 13.

So much for Florida’s rooftop solar movement.

In November, when Floridians see “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice” on the ballot, they’ll probably assume they’re voting on that solar power amendment that’s been in the news for the past year.

You know, the one that promises to free up consumers to lease solar panels with limited upfront costs. The one that would allow shopping centers to install rooftop solar panels and sell the electricity to tenants in the complex. The one that: “Limits or prevents government and electric utility imposed barriers to supplying local solar electricity.” The one associated with the “Floridians for Solar Choice,” a coalition of environmental groups, libertarians and solar industry entrepreneurs.

Undoubtedly, a substantial hunk of the voters will assume just that. And they’ll be wrong. Floridians for Solar Choice failed to gather the necessary number of verified signatures by the Feb. 1 deadline to get its amendment on the 2016 ballot.

But last week, the Florida Supreme Court — by a one vote margin — approved a cleverly worded amendment proposal that also sounds pro-solar. After all, it would guarantee consumers “the right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.”

Of course, that’s a right Floridians already enjoy. But the amendment would also insure “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.”

That judgment would be left to the utility monopolies and their minions on the Public Service Commission, none of whom can abide the notion of independent electricity producers cutting into utility profits. That phrase, which reads almost like an afterthought, would provide utilities and the PSC the means to undo the business plan that has propelled rooftop solar in less regressive states.

“Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware,” Justice Barbara Pariente warned in a particularly acerbic dissent. “Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida's major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo.”

Ironically, the amendment proposal that advanced Thursday had been contrived as a counter-measure last summer when it appeared that the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment might make the November ballot. The Consumers for Smart Solar alternative was meant to divert enough voters so that the real rooftop solar amendment wouldn’t receive the required 60 percent majority.

But come November, as Justice Pariente argued, “no real choice exists for those who favor expansion of solar energy.”

The court majority, however, decided that the text of the utility industry’s amendment wasn’t misleading and didn’t “constitute political or emotional rhetoric.”

Except that’s only true in a vacuum. The Supreme Court majority pretended that the solar power amendment that has been so much in the civic conversation over the last year didn’t exist. The court approved a stalking horse amendment, designed to confuse voters. We’ll find out in November if it can confuse the requisite 60 percent.