Guest Commentary: Pro-Solar Consumers Beware – Vote NO on Amendment 1

453

Voters may not know that “Consumers for Smart Solar” is a bankrolled front for Big Energy, which wants to control solar energy in Florida, and is looking to suppress competition from rooftop solar via Amendment 1 on the November ballot.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) exposed last year that four of the state’s largest utilities — Duke Energy, Gulf Power, Florida Power & Light, and Tampa Electric (TECO) — have sunk $12 million into lawmakers’ campaign coffers since 2010. The Tampa Bay Times reported in November that donations to “Consumers for Smart Solar” have added nearly $2 million more to the utility companies’ cause. FCIR contends that the money used to fight competition in the energy industry ultimately comes from people who pay their electric bills.

Many voters also may not realize that another group, “Floridians for Solar Choice,” was stymied in its efforts to get a different amendment on the ballot, which would have given more control to solar power owners. “Floridians for Solar Choice” filed a federal lawsuit against its petition-gathering vendor last December over billing expenses not related to signature collection. The dispute hampered the group’s efforts to secure enough signatures to have their amendment placed on the ballot this November, and they will try again in 2018.

Solar energy advocates, environmentalists, libertarians, and the League of Women Voters, among other supporters, championed the amendment proposed by Floridians for Solar Choice. The energy companies’ amendment was created to quash Floridians for Solar Choice, and has apparently used deceptive tactics to do so.

Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas spoke to citizens who were “duped” into signing the utilities’ amendment, thinking they were signing the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment, instead. One paid signature collector who worked for both amendment-proposing groups said he got paid more when citizens signed the utility-backed petition.

Yours truly, who prides herself on keeping up with what’s what, was likewise nearly duped while leaving Jacksonville’s Riverside Arts Market some months ago. When I asked the signature-collector straight up whether he was representing the utilities-backed amendment, he told me his was the one I wanted to sign, and emphasized the “pro-consumer” aspects of the amendment.

I didn’t sign, and I tore up my husband’s signature form before he could finish it.

Despite many credible reports of confusion between the two amendments, the Florida Supreme Court nevertheless OKed the wording of the utility-backed “Consumers for Smart Solar” amendment two weeks ago. The court said that the ballot item met basic legal requirements. Justice Barbara Pariente, in a scathing dissent, wrote, “Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware.”

Here’s the difference, in a nutshell, between Floridians for Solar Choice’s now defunct proposed amendment, and the utility companies’ proposed amendment:

Floridians for Solar Choice’s amendment, entitled “Limits or Prevents Barriers to Local Solar Electricity Supply,” would have allowed property owners to sign lease agreements with solar companies to finance and install equipment, and would have permitted owners to generate and sell solar electricity to contiguous property owners, as well as to area utilities.

Consumers for Smart Solar, backed by Big Energy, shrouds its proposal in consumer-protection language in an underhanded attempt to quash competition from solar power owners and the solar industry. The utility-backed amendment, using state laws as a template, raises concerns about solar customers relying on electrical infrastructures, aka “the grid,” and contends that non-solar electrical consumers should not have to “subsidize” back-up electrical power for solar users.

Once it became clear that the solar advocates’ petition failed, the Jacksonville Electric Authority wasted no time in introducing a proposal to slash net-metering credits to solar power owners in Jacksonville. Sebastian Kitchen of the Florida Times Union reports that the community-owned JEA has proposed paying 7.5 cents, instead of its current rate of 11 cents, to solar customers who send excess energy back to the grid.

JEA, which charges 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity, says it can produce its own solar power for 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, and is in the process of tripling its own solar capacity.

Solar advocates say that Jacksonville’s rooftop solar customers add a net benefit to the grid, and not a net drain, as JEA implies. Advocates also point out that solar customers help the utility reduce its emissions as required by law, which has not been taken into account in the net-metering reduction scheme.

While grid maintenance may be a legitimate concern, no one has come forth with a formula for calculating the cost of grid maintenance for solar-powered property owners.

Logically, the cost of maintaining the grid for solar-powered properties is covered in what owners are already paying for backup electricity.

Amendment 1 gives free rein to utilities like JEA to put the squeeze on rooftop solar owners and to restrict competition from non-utility-owned energy sources, using the guise of consumer protection.

It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I’ll be voting “no.”

 

Julie Delegal

 

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.