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Behind The Brewing Battle Over Solar In the Sunshine State

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Solar panels installed by ECS Solar Energy Systems provide Pearl Country Store with about 30 percent of its electricity. (Lindsay Alexander/WUFT News)
Solar panels installed by ECS Solar Energy Systems provide Pearl Country Store in Micanopy with about 30 percent of its electricity. (Lindsay Alexander/WUFT News)

Alachua County Commissioner Mike Byerly said he paid about $20,000 to install a solar power system for his home near Micanopy, Florida.

He said his family wanted to reduce its carbon footprint, and it was a good financial investment because he no longer pays power bills.

His home is completely unplugged from the electrical grid. Power lines don’t even run to his house.

Byerly said he wants Floridians to have greater access to solar power than they currently do.

Two ballot initiatives — one backed by solar companies and one by utilities and other business groups — are currently working their way through the process to be on the Nov. 2016 ballot. One would allow solar companies to lease or subsidize solar equipment to individuals rather than the outright purchase of the equipment in exchange for power-generation fees and the other would explicitly add to the state constitution the current system banning third-party purchase agreements.

If the Floridians for Solar Choice ballot initiative is approved in 2016, Floridians could have access to solar power systems without paying a dime for the equipment, said Tom Lane, the founder of ECS Solar Energy Systems Inc. in Gainesville, Florida.

Right now, a company can sell solar panels and equipment to a Floridian like Byerly. Byerly can then produce his own energy. He doesn’t pay any company for the energy, just equipment.

The Floridians for Solar Choice initiative would allow solar companies to lease equipment to residents so that they either pay significantly less for upfront costs of equipment or don’t pay for them at all, Stephen Smith, a member of the board of directors, said.

The Floridians for Solar Choice say their amendment would expand the solar market. A 60 percent supermajority of voters would have to approve the amendment on the ballot for it to become law.

The amendment needs just under 468,000 more verified petition signatures by Feb. 1 to qualify for a spot on the November 2016 ballot, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Floridians for Solar Choice expects to meet that mark, said Stephen Smith, a member of the board of directors. He said about 150,000 more petition signatures are in the verification process and more are being collected.

A New Way to Sell Electricity

Currently, if a company is not classified as a utility company, it is illegal for it to sell electricity, Smith said. That means solar power companies cannot sell solar energy in the state of Florida. The Floridians for Solar Choice initiative would change that status.

Companies in other states, like Solar City which serves 19 states and the District of Columbia, provide a variety of options for homeowners and businesses to install solar generating equipment, including outright purchase, low-cost loans, leasing and/or purchase power agreements.

Florida ranks third for rooftop solar energy generation potential, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

But Florida is one of four states that explicitly does not allow third party power purchase agreements, Smith said. North Carolina, Kentucky and Oklahoma also ban these agreements.

“The utilities, the big utilities like Florida Power & Light or Duke Energy do not really want to see people generating their own electricity because they want people to buy the electricity from them,” Smith said.

If the amendment passed, Smith said a company could install solar panels on someone’s home and charge for the power generated by those panels, which is currently illegal.

The company would cover some or all of the expensive upfront equipment costs, and the residents would buy energy generated by the panels on their homes, he said.

“That’s the magic of what we’re doing,” Smith said.

Smith and Byerly said the standing law against selling solar energy is a result of utility companies monopolizing the power industry.

“The issue is not whether people can get solar panels. The issue is whether people can afford them and whether we have the option for third party sales and companies to come in and help people finance them,” Smith said. “The utilities aren’t helping people finance them. That’s why we need to have some competition and some choice.”

An Initiative to Preserve Current Law

The law is not the only thing the proposed amendment is going up against.

Another constitutional amendment ballot initiative sprung up in July about seven months after Floridians for Solar Choice started collecting signatures. That amendment is backed by Consumers for Smart Solar.

Consumers for Smart Solar want to make the type of access Floridians have to solar power right now an explicit constitutional amendment.

Screven Watson, a board member of Consumers for Smart Solar who has a history as a consultant in Tallahassee, said it’s important to protect that right.

Floridians already have a right to solar power, however — that’s how Byerly was able to buy a solar system for his home. Watson argues the right isn’t explicitly in the state constitution.

“We are the Sunshine State, and we should have solar energy, and we should promote solar energy,” Watson said. “But we should do it in a way that makes sense for consumers.”

Watson said that unlike the Floridians for Solar Choice initiative, which would give regulatory immunity to solar panel companies, the Smart Solar initiative allows for local, city and county municipalities to regulate the solar industry for consumer protection and safety.

“I have never seen a private industry be given immunity from regulation in the Florida Constitution, and that’s what their amendment would do,” Watson said. “And that’s one of the big issues we have with theirs versus ours.”

Watson worries people could be taken advantage of by solar companies because the amendment doesn’t allow for common sense consumer protection.

The Floridians for Solar Choice amendment language specifically forbids government regulation of rates, but does allow for government regulation of health, safety and welfare.

Watson said another one of his concerns is the maintenance of the electric grid.

A house running on solar power has to connect to the electric grid if the house’s solar power system does not have a battery bank.  A battery bank is a piece of equipment that stores solar power.

Without a battery bank, a house running on solar power still has to be connected to the electric grid to have power when the sun isn’t shining.

Watson said if the solar choice amendment passed, solar power users without battery banks might not have to pay for access to the electric grid. He said this could cause utility companies to have to raise rates to maintain the grid.

That possible rate increase would fall on people who are connected to the electric grid and don’t have solar power.

“People who don’t buy or use solar are going to be left holding the bag,” Watson said.

Lane said the amendment backed by Consumers for Smart Solar was created by utility companies to confuse voters. He said he donated about $1,500 to the Solar Choice initiative.

Florida Power & Light, Tampa Electric, Gulf Power and Duke Energy have contributed almost $1.9 million to Smart Solar since July, according to the News Service of Florida.

Watson said it’s possible utility companies have donated $1.9 million to the Smart Solar amendment because they don’t want to raise electric grid maintenance rates.

Byerly disagreed.

“[Consumers for Smart Solar is] protecting their turf. They’ve mounted their alternative ballot measure to confuse people into voting for the wrong thing,” Byerly said. “Their initiative is anti-solar. There’s not a more accurate way to put it.”

Smith, who is also the Executive Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, called the Consumers for Smart Solar amendment anti-solar and highly refined to mislead people.

“The main thing is that people understand that one of these is genuinely committed to trying to grow the solar market and genuinely committed to trying to help people who don’t have solar have more access to it, and that’s the choice amendment,” Smith said.

About Lindsay Alexander

Lindsay is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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