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  1. Florida Politics

Are Florida voters getting burned by lawmakers on last year's solar amendment?

A human art installation, designed by artist John Quigley, forms for a "Hands Across the Sand" event on the beach in front of the Bilmar Beach Resort in Treasure Island, Fla., on Saturday, May 21, 2016. The event, organized by the Sierra Club and fellow environmental groups, aimed to promote solar energy in place of fossil fuels such as coal and gas.
Published Mar. 22, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A bill moving through the Florida House to implement the August ballot initiative by giving tax breaks to businesses that install solar energy panels is under fire for doing what the utility industry could not do in the last election cycle — impose impediments to rooftop solar installation.

Several legislators of a committee expressed reservations and members of the solar industry warned that a long list of "consumer protections" in the bill will actually serve to keep legitimate companies from doing business in Florida.

The bill, HB 1351 by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, passed unanimously.

In addition to authorizing language that prohibits property appraisers from increasing the taxable value of a home or business because of a solar installation, Rodrigues added language that he says will provide consumer safeguards against "bad actors" in the solar industry.

Rodrigues, R-Estero, said he modeled it off an Arizona law.

He acknowledged that there are no problems with solar industry installations today in Florida. However, he said removing the tax barriers will result in "an uptick" in new solar expansion, and "the time to do it is now rather than waiting until consumers are taken advantage of."

Under the bill, any company that installs rooftop solar would be required to file more than 20 financial disclosures relating to their business practices, calculate a customers' energy savings based on future — not past — energy rates, follow new codes and standards, and face new penalties for violations.

In addition, the Florida Public Service Commission would have new power to add rules related to solar safety and performance, in addition to those already in place.

Representatives of the solar industry told the committee that safety requirements are already in place, and the Solar Energy Industry Association already requires its members to adhere to best practices and disclosures intended to weed out bad actors and benefit consumers.

"This goes way too far," said Jeff Sharkey, lobbyist for Tesla, Solar City and the Energy Freedom Coalition of America. "At the end of the day, these are going to be confusing to consumers, potentially provide obstacles, and make it a little more difficult to purchase and install these energy-saving devices on their homes."

Several solar industry officials said the House measure is being used to inject barriers that are contrary to the pro-solar attitude voters had when they passed Amendment 4 with 73 percent support on the primary ballot last year. They say the language has appeared not only in Arizona but other states, where the utility industry is trying to stave off competition.

Florida's utilities have largely remained silent on Amendment 4 but have plans to expand their solar capacity throughout the state. The utility industry worked unsuccessfully to pass Amendment 1 on the November ballot, which would have allowed regulators to impose fees and barriers to rooftop solar installation.

The only person who spoke in favor of Rodrigues' bill was Mandy Hines, De Soto County administrator, whose county is home to Florida Power & Light's first utility-scale solar plant. The company plans to expand its utility-scale solar by constructing the Wildflower Solar Energy Center with another 74.5 megawatts of solar capacity.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the Senate sponsor of the bill to implement Amendment 4, said he does not support the added House language.

"My position is that voters clearly gave us direction, and we want to operate simply within the scope of the direction that 73 percent of the voters provided," Brandes told the Times/Herald. "I have had zero constituents come to me asking me to do anything more than what Amendment 4 authorized."

Instead, he said, Florida Power & Light lobbyists have told him "they spoke to Rep. Rodrigues about adding the language" to the implementing bill.

Brandes said he supports "standard disclosure, but if it's more than that, that's a problem."

"Commonsense consumer protection for all Floridians . . . makes all the sense in the world," said Sarah Gatewood, FPL spokeswoman, in an email to the Times/Herald.

Barry Jacobson, president of Solar Impact in Gainesville, told the committee that the layers of new rules would make it difficult to remain in business.

Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said the testimony persuaded him to have "real concerns" with the proposal, and he would like to see the proposed requirements pared down.

He said he supported the bill but "having heard from small business owners, when you put them all together, it does seem overwhelming when you have all of these requirements at one time."

Brandes' bill, SB 90, has passed unanimously through two Senate committees and has two more stops to the floor.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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