Column: Amendment 1 is the right choice for solar in Florida

Published Oct. 27, 2016

The Tampa Bay Times formalized its longstanding opposition to Amendment 1 in a recent editorial. Unfortunately, like our opponents, the Times would like voters to decide this issue based on everything except what the amendment actually says and does.

Those who are not sure about how to vote on this issue should ask three simple questions: Should the right of every Floridian to generate his or her own solar electricity be protected? Should solar energy companies have to abide by the same consumer protection rules that all other energy providers must follow? Should those who don't choose solar be protected from having to pay higher electric bills to subsidize someone else's decision to go solar?

If you answered yes, then you should vote yes on Amendment 1. Because that's all it does.

Here's the actual text of Amendment 1: Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice: This amendment establishes a right under Florida's constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. 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.

Despite what the Times editorial calls a "deception, which should have never been allowed on the ballot," the Florida Supreme Court approved Amendment 1 for the ballot, with the majority ruling stating that "we find that the title and summary clearly and unambiguously inform the voter."

The Times and our opponents argue that Amendment 1 would somehow erect roadblocks to solar energy in Florida. But this claim was disproved by state policy experts. Every Florida ballot initiative undergoes an extensive review, including public input by an independent panel of economists and policy experts to determine what, if any, financial impact an amendment might have so that the voters are advised of such impacts.

Despite the Times' belief to the contrary, the Financial Impact Estimating Conference found that "the proposed amendment will not require any change in current or anticipated state and local regulation or taxation of solar energy in Florida." Despite exaggerated claims to the contrary, the amendment does not give government new authority or any policy directive. It merely says that government will retain the authority it has today to protect consumers.

The reality is that consumers in states that listened to the arguments made by Amendment 1 opponents have paid a steep price. Consumer fraud, bankruptcies and broken promises are all too common when government is relieved of its obligation to protect consumers. Seniors have been trapped in 20-year contracts that they have had to pay off at a cost of over $10,000 in order to sell their homes. Real estate deals have been lost because buyers don't want or can't afford to take over a solar lease. A state with as many seniors as Florida is a target for many scams, so protecting consumers only makes common sense.

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Those special interests opposing Amendment 1 would have voters believe that utility companies are the only people supporting it. They are wrong. The Florida NAACP, the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Congress of Black Women all support Amendment 1. Like so many Floridians, they don't want those who don't choose solar to have to subsidize the energy choices of those who do.

We agree that we need to advance solar in the Sunshine State, but it must be done in the right way. Amendment 1 is that right way. Amendment 1 will safeguard consumer rights by ensuring that consumers will always have the right to generate their own solar electricity. And contrary to our opponents' claims, under Amendment 1, solar customers can still sell any excess electricity they generate back on to the grid.

Amendment 1 does not preclude or hinder any approach to solar. It merely ensures that whatever approach to solar Florida takes now or in the future, government will be able to protect consumers from scams, rip-offs and unsafe solar installations.

Amendment 1 ensures consumer fairness by allowing government to retain its current authority to stop unfair subsidies.

Dick Batchelor, co-chairman of Consumers for Smart Solar, is a former chairman of the Florida House Energy Committee and former chairman of the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission.