The investor-owned electric utilities and Attorney General Pam Bondi's office failed to make a compelling argument Tuesday for the Florida Supreme Court to block a referendum next year on expanding public access to solar power. They gave the court no reason to reject the ballot language of a 2016 constitutional amendment that would enable small-scale solar producers to resell energy in a limited market. The electric monopolies instead used Tuesday's oral arguments to further test a misinformation campaign that already is kicking into gear.
The issue before the justices is a narrow one: Does the proposed amendment deal with a single subject, and is the summary that would appear on the ballot clear enough for voters to make an informed decision? The answer to both questions is yes.
Floridians for Solar Choice is backing the first of two proposed amendments on solar energy. It would allow homeowners and businesses to sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power on the same or adjacent property. The effort is intended to jump-start the solar industry in a state where utility-friendly roadblocks make small-scale solar production virtually unmarketable. Under existing law, these operations fall under the purview of the state's Public Service Commission, and the Legislature has refused to open the market for genuine competition. Under the amendment, the state could not use regulations related to rates, service or market territory to bar these entities from operating.
The utilities and attorney general's office argued simultaneously that the amendment was too general yet would lead to specific problems. They insisted that the language was misleading and strayed from a single subject, then proceeded to document all sorts of doomsday scenarios — to rates, public safety, the natural landscape — that would stem from such a poorly focused amendment.
The irony in insisting that the ballot language was both vague and dangerous was so lost on the lawyers for the industry that it finally took Justice Barbara J. Pariente to call out the opposing counsel for arguing the merits of the amendment, not the wording itself. And Tuesday's court hearing provided another opportunity for the utilities to sell the canard that the ballot measure would bring an end to local health, safety and building regulations for small-scale solar units.
As promising as solar is for the Sunshine State, and as backward as the PSC and Legislature have been on energy, amending the state Constitution is not the best way to resolve policy issues. But there can be no denying that the ballot measure is clear. It already has helped to prod businesses into giving solar a second look and spawned a countermeasure for the 2016 ballot that would enshrine the status quo in the state Constitution and only confuse the voters. That competing amendment, backed by the misnamed Consumers for Smart Solar, is largely backed by the utility interests and has yet to be considered by the court.
At the moment, the future of solar, the fate of next year's elections and the direction of energy policy is not the issue. The ballot supporters for the straightforward Floridians for Solar Choice effort have presented a clean and fair amendment. The opponents may not like the ballot language, but they have offered nothing to justify the court knocking it off the ballot. Let the voters decide the issue.