State Politics

Proposed solar energy amendment has cities feuding

Workers install solar panels on the roof of a home.
Workers install solar panels on the roof of a home. AP

The battle over the future of solar power is dividing Florida’s city officials.

From Coral Gables to St. Petersburg, local officials are at odds over a decision by the organization that represents more than 400 municipal governments — the Florida League of Cities — to file a legal brief urging the Florida Supreme Court to reject putting the proposed Solar Choice amendment on the November 2016 ballot.

The amendment would allow homeowners and businesses to sell up to two megawatts of solar power and prohibit the state from erecting any barriers to a rooftop solar market in Florida. The citizen petition drive is being led by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and backed by dozens of interest groups, including the Florida Retail Federation, the Christian Coalition and the League of Women Voters.

But the measure is opposed by the state’s private and municipally-owned utility companies, which pay franchise fees in order to be the exclusive source of electric power in cities across the state. They argue that if third parties are allowed to sell solar power, many of their franchise agreements would be void.

The escalating fight offers a glimpse of the divisive debate that is headed to Florida — one of only four states without distributed solar power as an option for consumers — if the ballot language for the Solar Choice amendment is approved by the Florida Supreme Court. The court will hear arguments in September and will decide whether to put the citizens’ initiative before voters.

In June, the League of Cities joined with the Florida Municipal Electric Association in urging the court to reject the proposal, saying the loss of local revenue and the impact on city government violated the constitutional provision requiring proposed amendments to involve only a single subject.

But not everyone agrees, and this week 17 elected officials from 13 cities — including Pinecrest, Hallandale Beach, South Miami, St. Petersburg, Largo and Apopka — filed a protest, accusing the league of being led by powerful for-profit utilities and demanding that it withdraw the brief.

“There’s a number of city leaders who are pretty disgusted with the league,’’ said South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, one of the officials who signed the protest letter. “It feels like a really parochial organization that’s been co-opted by Florida Power & Light.”

In a letter to the league leadership, city officials called the league’s arguments “alarmist, unsupported and speculative’’ and accused them of violating protocol because they failed to wait to get a formal vote by the city officials who make up its membership.

“I was stunned,’’ said Karl Nurse, a St. Petersburg city commissioner and former chairman of the League of Cities’ Energy and Environment Committee. He attended a meeting of the committee last week during which Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner tried to raise the issue of the league’s brief.

“The staff presented the argument in favor of siding with the power companies and would not even allow her to make the counter argument,” Nurse said. “This is really part of a larger effort on the part of the for-profit power companies to kill renewable energy before it gets too big. I would be stunned if FPL didn’t instigate this.’’

John Thomas, the league’s director of public affairs, said Wednesday that the decision was made by staff and league leadership based on the “problems with the initiative’’ and did not violate any protocol.

“The league has been filing briefs this way for 30 years now,’’ he said. “We try to make decisions that are in the best interest of our member cities.”

He said the organization’s “resolution committee” will take a formal vote on the proposed amendment in August but the brief is not an indication that the league does not support solar energy.

“Our members will have the opportunity to speak on this at our conference,’’ Thomas said. “It is too early to determine what the position of the League of Cities will be.”

But the letter writers noted that economists had concluded the revenue impact on the state and local government could not be determined and the proposal does not prohibit cities from changing the law to equalize taxes and apply the same rates to solar customers.

Instead, they said, by encouraging more solar ownership there will be an increase in rooftop solar financing options and local governments could benefit from a more diverse energy stream.

“The league acted rather prematurely,’’ said Vince Lago, a Coral Gables city commissioner who signed the letter. “It would have been in the best interest for the league — and the state as a whole — had they waited for a full discussion amongst the League of Cities and an eventual vote in reference to the amendment.”

In a separate brief, Coral Gables argues that the amendment could “potentially restrict or prohibit the ability of the City of Coral Gables to promote solar power usage” by preventing its zoning laws from protecting its “signature look” with local aesthetic standards through its architectural review board process.

A year ago, Coral Gables angered Miami and other South Florida municipal officials when it reached a last-minute settlement with FPL over building transmission lines through the county.

Lago said the city has not taken a formal position on the Solar Choice amendment and he disagrees with his city attorney’s reasoning that it will interfere with the city’s zoning laws. But, he said, the city remains committed to promoting solar energy. On Tuesday, it became the first city in the state to begin a pilot program in October to offer a standardized permitting process that will expedite projects to install solar photovoltaic cells, he said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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