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  1. Opinion

Dockery: Don't be fooled by anti-solar Amendment 1

Published Sep. 22, 2016

Polls consistently show the overwhelming majority of Floridians have a positive view of solar energy, yet the Sunshine State lags behind many states in solar power.

One obstacle has been the Florida Legislature's reluctance to buck utilities by supporting policies that expand solar-generating opportunities for small businesses or that reduce costs for residential use.

The large power companies don't want to lose market share. That's understandable. They count on customers—ratepayers—to grow their profit. They have to keep their shareholders happy. Nothing wrong with that.

But consumers deserve a choice. Many look at solar power as an environmentally friendly way to take control of their utility costs.

Businesses and homeowners seeking to install solar panels on their roofs consider whether the up-front equipment and installation costs can be offset with long-term savings.

Enterprising small businesses saw an opportunity to help expand solar energy use by leasing solar panels and limiting up-front costs to homeowners. They hope to sell excess electricity to neighboring homes and businesses. This is a free-market solution that would help Florida grow its use of clean, renewable energy while bringing costs down. It requires a change in law.

Investor-owned utilities don't want to change the status quo. In exchange for exclusive service areas, utilities are regulated through the Florida Public Service Commission. Policy changes affecting energy production and distribution are decided by the Legislature. The utilities have historically fared well in both of these arenas.

The utilities financially contribute to candidates, political committees and parties. They have been successful in influencing appointments to the PSC, which sets their rates. So the status quo serves them well.

Imagine their discomfort when a group called Floridians for Solar Choice started a citizens' initiative to deregulate the solar market to allow third-party power providers to sell rooftop solar-generated power to neighbors.

Florida's four largest electric companies launched a counteroffensive. They crafted their own constitutional amendment to compete with the pro-solar effort. Their goal was to confuse voters with competing amendments. As it turned out, they had the resources to get their amendment on the November ballot through paid petition gatherers. The real pro-solar effort didn't have the same deep pockets and fell short of getting on the ballot this year.

The utility-backed "Consumers for Smart Solar" initiative will appear on the November ballot as Amendment One.

The utility industry was very shrewd—and devious—in crafting the amendment language. Instead of promoting choice, it limits it. Instead of allowing competition, it suppresses it. Instead of helping small businesses, it requires more regulation.

The Florida Supreme Court had the chance to keep the deceptive language from the ballot and protect voters from being misled. Instead, the deeply divided court—on a 4-3 vote—allowed it to go forward.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente stated, "Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware. Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida's major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo."

The ballot summary is brilliant in its deception.

It starts with: "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."

This grants no new right—it is already afforded through state law. The purpose of leading with this language was to fool voters into thinking this was pro-solar.

It goes on to say: "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."

This is the crux of the amendment that would require more regulation of small businesses that dare to compete with the monopolistic utility companies. Under the guise of consumer protection, it would actually protect their profits and limit competition.

And it proposes doing this in the Florida Constitution—not through general law, thus making it much more difficult to change.

The four major utilities—Duke Energy, Gulf Power, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light—have given the lion's share of the $21 million reported for the initiative. That's a lot of money going to deny us choice and competition.

It takes 60 percent of the vote to pass. The utilities will be spending millions more in sunny-sounding TV ads.

Don't be fooled by their clever ploy. Vote NO on Amendment 1 and let them know you're smarter than they think.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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