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PolitiFact Florida | Tampa Bay Times

PolitiFact Florida examines Al Gore's warning about utilities' plan for solar amendment

During a rally for Hillary Clinton at Miami Dade College, former Vice President Al Gore called Amendment 1 a “phoney-baloney” initiative that could give utilities the power to kill net metering.

Associated Press

During a rally for Hillary Clinton at Miami Dade College, former Vice President Al Gore called Amendment 1 a “phoney-baloney” initiative that could give utilities the power to kill net metering.

Stumping for Hillary Clinton in South Florida, former Vice President Al Gore wanted to enlighten a crowd of supporters about a controversial ballot measure on solar energy.

Gore said the utility companies that back Amendment 1 make it sound like it fosters solar, but it's a "phony-baloney" initiative.

"The things they claim protect solar are protections you already have," Gore said at Miami Dade College's Kendall campus on Oct. 11. "But they are trying to fool you into amending your state Constitution in a way that gives them the authority to shut down net metering and do in Florida what they did in Nevada and just kill the solar industry."

Amendment 1 is widely considered a deliberate attempt by utilities to erect barriers to competition and prevent third-party leasing of solar. But Gore goes a bit too far to say the measure would automatically grant utilities unchecked "authority" to kill net metering.

Amendment 1 drew fire for crowding out a more grass-roots solar power amendment that failed to make this year's ballot — in part because utility companies contributed millions to Amendment 1's war chest. The Florida Supreme Court determined the language of the amendment was not misleading and approved it, 4-3.

Florida is one of five states that does not allow a property owner to have a third-party installer put solar panels on their roof and sell the power back to them.

The amendment will leave that ban in place, but, if the ban on solar leasing were removed, the language in the amendment could discourage third-party sales. It gives utility companies the right to impose new fees on all solar customers, making solar sales and leasing less economical.

Audio surfaced this month of Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the utilities-backed James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, at an energy summit calling the amendment "an incredibly savvy maneuver" that "would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road," according to the Miami Herald.

Before that story, environmentalists and solar advocates said they were tipped off by the very wording in the amendment:

"State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to ensure 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."

The first clause protects a person's ability to put solar panels on their house. Current law already allows that. The second half is the controversial part, because critics like Gore say it will allow utility companies to end a process called net metering.

Net metering allows someone to sell their excess solar-generated power to the utilities. Those people would also enjoy a lower bill because they draw less electricity from the traditional, power plant-supplied grid.

Utility companies nationwide have argued that this is unfair, because homes with solar panels are getting all the benefits of being connected to the grid without having to pay as much for the upkeep of generators and transmission lines as other customers. Traditional customers, they say, are subsidizing solar customers.

Solar promoters disagree with those claims. They argue that instead of costing non-solar customers more, solar energy brings more value to the electricity distribution system than it takes away. A Brookings Institution study in May said adding solar power cuts costs and increases efficiency, leading to customer savings.

Amendment 1 opponents therefore fear that utilities will lobby the state to allow a surcharge on solar customers or, as Gore said, change the policy for net metering. If Amendment 1 is approved, state officials could define what it means to "subsidize" solar power.

It's a reasonable concern. Florida Power & Light has already told the state Public Service Commission in June 2015 that it didn't see the practice as sustainable, repeatedly referring to "subsidies required to support rooftop solar."

Ending net metering would strangle a vital revenue source for those third-party solar companies, which make money by leasing the equipment and selling excess power to utilities. The chance to cripple competitors would give utilities a big incentive to kill net metering.

As Gore mentioned, that's what happened in Nevada, which reduced net metering payments so much that major third-party companies left the state, dropping new panel installations by 92 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

But no one knows for certain what Florida's utility companies would do about net metering, or potential extra fees. Both are possible, but neither are definite if Amendment 1 passes.

Changes wouldn't be automatic, either. Florida's Public Service Commission would have to approve utilities' requests. And since net metering is a part of state statute, the matter would likely end up before the state Supreme Court.

Amendment 1 would potentially give utilities a constitutional argument to eventually charge solar customers more, or change net metering policies. There's no certain proof that Florida regulators would approve either, but experts told us it's a very reasonable suspicion.

We rate his statement Half True.

This story has been edited. Read the full fact-check at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

The statement

Says electric utilities "are trying to fool you into amending your state Constitution in a way that gives them the authority to shut down net metering."

Former Vice President Al Gore, Oct. 11 in a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton

The ruling

Amendment 1 will work against the broader efforts of solar proponents. But Gore went a bit too far to say the measure would automatically grant utilities unchecked "authority" to kill net metering. We rate his statement Half True.

PolitiFact Florida examines Al Gore's warning about utilities' plan for solar amendment 10/23/16 [Last modified: Sunday, October 23, 2016 8:22pm]
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