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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Don't confuse solar energy debate

If the solar amendment makes it onto the 2016 ballot, opponents should make their best case to voters for rejecting it rather than confusing them by offering another amendment.
If the solar amendment makes it onto the 2016 ballot, opponents should make their best case to voters for rejecting it rather than confusing them by offering another amendment.
Published Aug. 7, 2015

The dueling proposed amendments on solar power in Florida reflect why the state Constitution is the wrong place to resolve policy issues best addressed by the Legislature. While Florida needs to make greater use of solar, competing amendments would only confuse voters and businesses and delay the day when solar becomes a bigger part of the Sunshine State's energy mix. The first proposed amendment is a genuine attempt to address an issue the Legislature has failed to resolve, but the second one is an underhanded attempt to confuse voters.

Floridians for Solar Choice is backing the first constitutional amendment on solar energy that could be on the 2016 ballot, which would allow homeowners and businesses to sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power to anyone on the same or contiguous property. It's a bid to jump-start the sale of rooftop solar systems by removing the state from having any control over the rates, service or territory of small-scale producers. Under existing law, these operations fall under the regulation of the state's Public Service Commission, and state legislators have refused to allow these entities to carve away a greater share of the market from the utility monopolies.

The ideal resolution would be a statutory fix that recognizes the potential of solar, the consumer benefits from competition, the limited capacity of small-scale producers and the prospects for new business investment and jobs by giving the budding solar industry a stronger foothold in Florida. But with no progress in Tallahassee, Floridians for Solar Choice has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow small-scale power sales. The state Division of Elections approved the petition in December, and the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments on the ballot language in September.

Last month, a rival group aligned with the utilities filed its own proposed amendment. The measure by the misnamed Consumers for Smart Solar would merely codify in the state Constitution what's already in state law — provisions that allow consumers to own or lease solar equipment on their property. It doesn't expand solar one bit or rewrite state regulations an iota, because its purpose is not to stoke the solar market but to confuse voters and preserve the status quo.

This deceptive ploy has been used before by opponents to defeat other amendments, from a measure to manage growth to another that would have taxed sugar growers to clean up the Everglades. It underscores the problem with forcing voters to decide public policy issues with yes or no votes on constitutional amendments that are impossible to adjust once they are approved. And then there's the separate question of why solar or any other single energy source belongs in the state Constitution at all.

The public's frustration with the Legislature and the utility-minded PSC is understandable, especially as the investor-owned utilities jump on the increasing popularity of solar. Last week, Tampa Electric Co. announced plans to build a 25 megawatt solar facility in Apollo Beach, in what would be the largest solar installation in the Tampa Bay area. That news follows the plans announced by Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light to build solar capacity in central and southwest Florida.

But these developments are not expanding competition in solar, leaving voters to resort to amending the Florida Constitution since the legislative and executive branches have failed to act. If the solar amendment makes it onto the 2016 ballot, opponents should make their best case to voters for rejecting it rather than confusing them by offering another amendment.