Column: The voters have spoken loudly for Sunshine State solar power

Published Mar. 1, 2017

Last year, Florida voters spoke loud and clear at the ballot box about solar energy not once, but twice. By approving Amendment 4 and rejecting Amendment 1, Floridians made it clear they want the right to choose solar energy to power their homes and businesses and freedom from burdensome taxes and penalties imposed by governments and monopoly power companies. We will soon see both of the sentiments play out when the Florida Legislature officially begins its session on Tuesday.

It's safe to say that 2016 was a good year for smart energy policy. Amendment 4, which garnered an overwhelming 73 percent "yes" vote in the August primary election, will mean that going solar no longer raises property taxes or subjects Florida families and businesses that use solar to punitively high tangible personal property taxes.

This free-market principle will lower property taxes, lower power bills, provide more energy independence and create local jobs that can't be outsourced. It's a win-win and is supported by a broad coalition that spans the political spectrum and business community. The next step is for the Legislature to honor the will of the voters and implement Amendment 4 this year without any additions that would weaken the amendment's intent with additional bureaucratic barriers.

Voters also decisively rejected Amendment 1 backed by the state's monopoly utilities, which sought to pave the way for punitive fees and discriminatory penalties on Floridians who power their homes and business with solar power. Thankfully Amendment 1 failed, so families and businesses are still entitled to generate their own power and connect to the electrical grid, through an existing net metering agreement, without being penalized by their power company.

Just a few years ago, the Sunshine State solar market was looking increasingly cloudy. There were concerns that Florida's appointed Public Service Commission — the agency that regulates monopoly utilities — would weaken the state's already-limited solar policies at the behest of power companies. Legislative efforts to remove solar barriers, like allowing solar power sales by someone other than a monopoly utility or lowering property taxes on solar, were continually thwarted by powerful utilities like Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy. Something had to be done to open the free market and provide customers with choice.

In January 2015, that "something" resulted in the launch of the Floridians for Solar Choice coalition — a coalition of more than 100 groups ranging from Conservatives for Energy Freedom and the Christian Coalition to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the League of Women Voters, and many more business and organizations — all pushing for a free market for solar power in the Sunshine State. The coalition was powered by thousands of committed volunteers across the state. The hard work over several years paid off — eventually earning big victories with the passage of Amendment 4 and the defeat the anti-solar Amendment 1. Yet challenges remain.

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The monopoly utilities continue to have an outsized influence at our Public Service Commission. The commissioners are appointed by the governor from a pool of candidates approved by a nominating committee of the Florida Legislature. Given the large sums of money donated by power companies to the political process, appointments are inherently subject to negative political influence and the independence of these unelected commissioners is appropriately questioned. Such issues have even led some to call for an elected commission.

The "solar uprising" movement is growing because Floridians want to enjoy the benefits of lower bills, cleaner energy, economic development and local jobs. Last year, solar added more power capacity in the United States than any other power source. Solar industries employ over 200,000 nationally and the number continues to grow.

The voters have clearly spoken: Reduce taxes and protect the freedom to choose solar power. The Legislature should honor the voters' desire for tax relief by cleanly implementing Amendment 4 this year so that Florida can finally have its day in the sun.

Tory Perfetti is chair of Floridians for Solar Choice and Florida director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom. Dr. Stephen Smith is a board member of Floridians for Solar Choice and executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.