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PolitiFact: Is Florida 1 of 5 states that bans electricity sales by solar installers?

Published Jan. 19, 2015

When it comes to solar, the Sunshine State is, well, in the dark, advocates say.

A coalition of folks across the political spectrum ranging from tea party activists to environmentalists have united to launch a campaign to allow the direct sale of solar energy to consumers.

State law only allows utilities to sell power, but a new political action committee, Floridians for Solar Choice, wants to change that. The PAC seeks to get a referendum on the ballot for the 2016 election, needing 683,149 signatures by Feb. 1, 2016.

"Currently, Florida is one of only five states in the nation that prohibit citizens from buying electricity from companies that will put solar panels on your home or business," according to the group's website. Is that accurate? We decided to shed a little light.

Although solar has been expanding nationally, Florida isn't a leader: It ranks third in solar capacity but 13th in installations, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Solar represents less than 1 percent of Florida's energy generation, and the state projects little growth over the next decade.

Florida law only allows utilities such as Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric to sell power directly to consumers. If a solar power generator wants to get into the state market, it must first sell to one of those utilities.

The evidence that only five states forbid direct sales comes from DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, a project based at North Carolina State University and funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Its map shows states that allow third-party solar power agreements. Under power purchase agreements, or PPAs, an installer-developer builds a solar system on a customer's property for free and then the developer sells the power to the customer.

As of November, at least 24 states allowed these third-party solar agreements — though in some states there are restrictions, such as only allowing them of a certain size or on a type of property. The five states that don't allow any such agreements are Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

However, the map shows the status as unclear or unknown in 21 states. That's because "the statutory law is silent about the issue, and from what we can gather, no solar companies in these states have attempted to sell electricity directly to a customer," DSIRE project manager Brian Lips said.

That means those 21 states are in a legal gray area, Solar Energy Industries Association spokesman Ken Johnson said.

"It isn't specifically allowed or disallowed, but given the laws in place, it's not hard to imagine that a court would uphold the utility's exclusivity," Johnson said. "Most states don't go so far to protect monopoly utilities, but Florida is one of them."

We sent the claim to spokesmen for Florida's Public Service Commission and utilities. A spokesman for Duke Energy directed us to Solar Power Rocks, a research and advocacy organization that ranks states on solar policies. On this ranking, Florida landed in the middle of the pack with a "C" and 24th among states. But this website doesn't take into account the third-party PPAs — it considers other factors, such as whether states offer tax exemptions or rebates for solar.

A spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission, Cindy Muir, questioned characterizing Florida as one of only five states with such a ban, since 21 states are classified as unknown.

Muir also said that Florida law does allow leases for solar. Under that scenario, a developer installs the solar energy system and the customer pays for it over years rather than paying for the power produced. The advantage of the PPA is that the customer doesn't hold the production risk. Under a lease, the customer can end up paying the same, whether the system ends up producing 100 percent of expected electricity, or a lesser amount, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

So is Florida one of only five states that prohibit citizens from buying electricity from companies that will put solar panels on a home or business? That is true, but it doesn't mean 45 states allow sales. In 21 states, the status is unclear or unknown, and pro-solar advocates say few if any sales are happening. Still, when it comes to specific prohibitions, Florida is among a handful of states. We rate this claim Mostly True.

This report has been edited for print. Read more fact-checks at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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