1. Opinion

Column: Time for solar choice

Workers install solar panels on a house in Louisville, Ky. In Florida, two very different ballot initiatives are being waged on solar power: One is a grassroots effort; the other is a sham.
Workers install solar panels on a house in Louisville, Ky. In Florida, two very different ballot initiatives are being waged on solar power: One is a grassroots effort; the other is a sham.
Published Nov. 27, 2015

There is an epic battle brewing over the direction of solar policy in the Sunshine State. If you would like to power your home or business with solar panels, or want a more sustainable and secure energy future, you have a stake in the outcome.

With 20 years in the Florida Legislature and most recently five years as general counsel for the Florida Public Service Commission — the agency that regulates the state's utilities — I've learned a few things about energy policy and utility regulation.

Many years ago, I tried to move legislation to allow "time of day" pricing so consumers could use power when it's cheaper. Big monopoly utilities — a powerful force in the state capital — fought it and were unwilling to allow customers the opportunity to save on energy costs.

Now there is a crack in that armor, and the crusade is being waged with two very different solar ballot initiatives to amend the Florida Constitution. One is a citizen-led initiative that removes barriers to solar power in Florida. The other, bankrolled by the power companies, merely maintains the status quo and is designed to mislead and confuse voters.

Don't be fooled.

Floridians for Solar Choice is a grassroots, diverse coalition of conservative, libertarian, religious, business and environmental organizations whose ballot petition would remove barriers to solar power sales in Florida. Unfortunately, we are one of only four states where the law prohibits anyone but your utility to sell you power. In states without this barrier, sales of rooftop solar power by third parties is booming. That's because families, including middle and lower-income households, and businesses have financing options and access to the economic benefits of solar power.

The truth is, the Sunshine State has a long way to go to realize its solar power potential. It has the best sunshine east of the Mississippi, yet it has less than 8,500 rooftop solar systems. By contrast, New Jersey, with half the population and less sun, has over 35,000 solar rooftop systems.

It's no surprise the solar choice movement is gaining steam here. Solar is popular around the country and around the world. That has not gone unnoticed by the state's monopoly power companies.

To counter the Floridians for Solar Choice citizen-led initiative, the power companies and fossil fuel industry groups have created a sham solar initiative designed to mislead and confuse voters. It does nothing more than preserve the status quo for solar. It's hard to imagine a petition designed to mislead passing Florida Supreme Court scrutiny, but that's not the point of the effort. They hope to confuse and kill the Solar Choice effort.

The power companies say that removing barriers to solar power for all Floridians will drive up costs for non-solar customers. They say the Solar Choice amendment will restrict consumer protections. Both assertions are unsupported by facts and patently not true.

Instead of blatant falsehoods, we should be having an honest debate about the future of rooftop solar power in the Sunshine State.

The facts are the Solar Choice amendment allows more ownership and financing options for Florida families and businesses that want solar power. If third-party sales can sell solar power under the Solar Choice amendment, there will be increased opportunities for middle- and lower-income families to participate in the expanding rooftop solar market. Solar power will be within reach of all Floridians.

Additionally, when solar providers own the system, they pay the up-front cost and assume all the risk, while the energy consumer gets to lock in long-term savings from the power produced. And for renters with no roof space, landlords can invest in solar power and provide the power directly to tenants. It's the same thing with shopping centers. Ultimately we all benefit.

While I understand Florida's monopoly utilities are concerned with losing sales, they must also see that 20th century regulation is running headlong into 21st century technological development. Rather than fight the future with a cynical effort to deny Floridians a voice and a choice in their energy choices, they should embrace and adapt for the future. The time for true solar choice is now.

Curt Kiser represented Pinellas County in the Florida Legislature from 1972 to 1994. He was General Counsel of the Florida Public Service Commission from 2009 to 2014 and served on the Public Service Commission Nominating Council for 17 years with three terms as Chair. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.