Carbon wolf in solar clothing?: Criticism rains down on Florida’s ‘sneaky’ Amendment 1

Solar panels being installed on the roof of a residence. (Photo credit: CoCreatr via Flickr / Creative Commons)

A solar power question on the November ballot in Florida has been described by environmentalists as a wolf in sheep’s clothing that could actually harm solar development in the Sunshine State. FSRN’s Sean Kinane reports, Florida’s large electric utility companies are pushing for Amendment 1.

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The group supporting Florida’s solar amendment, Consumers for Smart Solar, says Amendment 1 “will promote the increased use of solar power in Florida by allowing consumer choice, providing consumer protections and ensuring that all citizens are treated fairly, whether they choose to put solar panels on their home or not.” Sounds like a boost for alternative energy generation in the state – right?

But advocates for solar power, like St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, say it’s not so: “Vote no. It’s a bad solar amendment. It’s a sneaky amendment, put forth by utilities. Essentially what it would do is – the November, the bad one – it would do away with net metering. That would make it very difficult for people who are generating solar power to sell it back on the grid and it just takes away one of the biggest ways that solar power can gain a foothold, economically in this state.”

Democratic State Representative Dwight Dudley is not running for reelection. Perhaps that’s why he is willing to blame the electric companies for this amendment, which he says would “solidify” laws that keep Florida from reaching its solar potential.

“We’re ranked very high in terms of our capability, but we’re ranked very low in terms of our utilization because of stupid laws that are all done to the benefit of the utility companies,” Dudley says.

Amendment 1 opponents note that during the primary season in August, Florida voters handily approved an initiative that gives tax breaks to solar users. Now, they face yet another ballot measure – but this seemingly pro-solar one could actually serve to limit third-party access to the solar market.

Much of the funding for Consumers for Smart Solar comes from the state’s electric utility monopolies; several of them have contributed more than a million dollars. And now there’s evidence on tape that Amendment 1 is just a shield by the utilities to preemptively block moves to expand the solar market.

Audio was leaked this month by the left-leaning group Center for Media and Democracy in which a vice president from a libertarian think-tank described the political strategy behind the November amendment and how it would “completely negate” future solar power initiatives.

“The takeaway as you guys look at policy in your state or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: solar polls very well,” says Sal Nuzzo, with the James Madison Institute. “To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jujitsu and take what they’re kind of hitting us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums if that’s the direction you want to take, use the language of promoting solar, and kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”

Some groups advocating for African-American residents support Amendment 1 because it guarantees “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.”

But Melissa Baldwin, with For Our Future, which supports clean energy policy and electing progressive Democrats, says the notion of a subsidy is just a scare tactic: “So that’s absolute nonsense. What that is is the utilities trying to fool people into thinking that they’re protecting their own wallets. But what really it is is the utilities protecting the utility wallets. So the idea that solar is somehow subsidized is absolute nonsense. When you have solar panels on your house and you connect to the grid, even still, you still pay a connection fee. So even people who have solar panels on their house – they have like a zero-net-energy – they’re still paying that connection fee. So they are paying some grid maintenance. So they are contributing.”

Contributing electricity to the grid with solar panels means burning less fossil fuels and a reduced impact on climate change. That’s especially important in Florida. David Hastings, a professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, points to the harm Florida is already experiencing as a result of climate change: higher sea-levels, stronger hurricanes, and warmer and more acidic oceans – which threaten the state’s coral reefs. So, Hastings supports solar power. And he opposes Amendment 1.

“Obviously, there are a lot of solutions to climate change and producing energy that’s renewable – that isn’t reliant on burning carbon and producing CO2 – is extremely important. And one of those ways is to put solar on our houses – solar photovoltaic electricity,” Hastings explains. “Amendment 1 is worded in a very confusing way. It appears to be pro-solar; but, in fact no solar industry supports it and no environmental group, who supports solar electricity, supports it. So, it’s intentionally confusing.”

The editorial boards of Florida’s largest newspapers have all recommended that residents vote no on Amendment 1.

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