By Ann H. Dubin
While there is ample potential for solar energy expansion in a place like Florida, current policies do not necessarily encourage the technology. For example, Florida has no renewable portfolio standards (RPS), nor are power purchase agreements (PPAs) allowed that might open up the solar market. In the August statewide primary, voters did approve Amendment 4, a non-controversial measure that extends tax abatements for residential solar users to commercial users, as well. But barriers remain, such as high insurance premiums for those who install solar. Duke Energy, the state’s second-largest utility, requires a $1,000,000 insurance policy for private solar users generating more than 10 kilowatts. In short, the state lacks an RPS that might spur solar development; PPAs that might make it easier for consumers to afford solar are prohibited; and despite tax abatements, insurance policies for solar installers are a steep price to pay. Thus, even though the opportunity is there, Florida lags behind other states, such as Nevada, with similar solar capacity.
Amendment 1 establishes the right to solar in Florida’s constitution. It allows individuals and businesses to own and lease solar equipment to generate their own electricity while providing specific legal authorization for the leasing of solar equipment—a practice that occurs now but is not yet specifically authorized in Florida. Amendment 1 also allows state and local governments to continue to protect consumers from fraudulent practices, such as overcharging.
In other words, the investor-owned utilities and their allies frame Amendment 1 as a consumer-protection measure.
Groups on the other side of the issue, however, claim that Florida is a utility-monopoly state, and that Amendment 1 is a thinly veiled effort on the part of the utilities to protect their bottom line and foreclose a free market for solar that would benefit consumers and producers by creating competition. From the website of Floridians for Solar Choice, the coalition of organizations working against Amendment 1:
Floridians for Solar Choice supporters believe Florida citizens should have the right and freedom to choose solar power generated electricity if they want and from whom they want. Solar power should be available to every Floridian.
FSC’s coalition is a strange-bedfellows mix of conservative groups and environmental groups. Though these two movements don’t usually find much common ground, both wish to promote solar in the Sunshine State. For conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, the Libertarian Party of Florida, and Conservatives for Energy Freedom, it is a matter of creating conditions where the market dictates winners and losers, rather than a state-regulated environment that creates an unnatural monopoly benefitting the utilities. For environmental groups, it is a matter of creating incentives for residential and commercial energy users to invest in clean, renewable energy. Calling themselves the Green Tea Coalition, these diverse actors have come together to lobby against Consumers for Smart Solar. Moreover, FSC attempted to get a competing solar amendment on the November ballot, but it failed to gain enough signatures. The alliance has vowed to try again, working to get their amendment on the 2018 general election ballot.
Meanwhile, the political intrigue surrounding Amendment 1 has thickened as Election Day draws near. We all know about the role of the “October surprise” in presidential campaigns, but the solar battle in Florida got its own October surprise: a recording surfaced of Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the conservative (and pro-Amendment 1) James Madison Institute, implying that the wording of the amendment was “political Jiu Jitsu” intended to obfuscate its implications and confuse voters about its consequences. That revelation breathed new life into FSC’s campaign to defeat Amendment 1.
As recently as last month, Amendment 1’s support was polling in the high 80s, according to St. Leo University (in Florida, ballot initiatives must have 60% of the vote to pass). Now, however, those numbers have taken a tumble as FSC and its allies have pushed back on what they claim is purposefully misleading wording in the amendment (bolstered by Nuzzo’s faux pas). That said, almost 5 million Floridians have already cast their ballots in early voting, and it may be too late for FSC to turn the tide at the ballot box. Prompted by that fear, the anti-Amendment 1 forces took the extraordinary step of appealing to the State Supreme Court to have the amendment removed from the ballot—less than a week before Election Day. The Court has agreed to consider it, but this is the same court that approved the amendment’s wording back in March.
There is something of a classic David vs. Goliath situation being framed by the FSC coalition, wherein the utilities have the Florida Public Service Commission in the palm of their hand, while their organization is out there fighting for everyday Floridians’ access to a valuable commodity. Though that narrative has its appeal, it is false that the only parties backing Amendment 1 are the deep-pocketed business interests who make an easy political target. Advocates for disadvantaged communities, too, are urging passage of the amendment on the grounds that it will protect vulnerable consumers. Because of the prohibition on PPAs and the high insurance rates associated with solar installations, these advocates point out, only the relatively wealthy can afford to outfit their homes and businesses with solar panels; if Amendment 1 fails and those users are free to abandon the grid, Floridians who cannot afford the luxury of solar will be hit with increased utility bills. I met with a woman from the National Congress of Black Women (which filed an amicus brief in favor of Amendment 1 with the Court), a lifelong civil rights activist. She made their position very clear: a vote against Amendment 1 is a vote against minority communities, not a vote against the IOUs. For many environmentalists who support clean energy but also tend to be socially liberal and concerned with racial justice, this argument may give them pause as they consider Amendment 1.
It is tough to pin down energy and climate politics in Florida. Though the state leans conservative, there is evidence that the average Floridian is more concerned about climate change than is the average voter elsewhere. It is also difficult to predict the fate of Amendment 1 given that it has split the conservative coalition in the state, with established pro-business groups backing the amendment while libertarian and religious groups join forces with left-wing environmental groups to defeat it. A month ago, the amendment looked sure to pass; now, the outcome is less certain, especially with the potential intervention of the court. Though the state is fulfilling its perennial role as a presidential battleground, Florida political observers this Tuesday will be biting their nails over more than just the Clinton-Trump match-up.
Ann H. Dubin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and a Graduate Fellow in the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, College Park.