The Sunshine State? Not for solar energy. Florida lawmakers have blocked those efforts for years, protecting the investor-owned utilities at consumers' expense. No wonder voters are taking the petition route to try to change the Florida Constitution and deregulate the electrical power industry in a way that could make solar more accessible and affordable. Changing the constitution is not the best way to create a smarter statewide energy policy. But the movement reflects the public's frustration with having such an abundant resource so out of reach.
Florida's failure to realize its solar potential was highlighted again in a report last week by the New York Times, which chronicled the nagging barriers consumers still face in tapping this clean energy source. While the state's investor-owned utilities have been expanding their own production of solar, the newspaper reported, Florida is still one of only a handful of states that prohibit the sale of solar electricity directly to consumers unless the provider is a utility. And many factors restraining the market continue to hold back consumers, from a state rule requiring expensive insurance policies for home solar arrays to practices by the utilities aimed at frustrating solar customers.
"I've had electric utility executives say with a straight face that we can't have solar power in Florida because we have so many cloudy days," Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, told the paper.
While Florida leads the nation when it comes to the expansion of the utilities' own solar arrays, the Times reported, solar still accounted for only 1 percent of electricity generation in Florida last year, far less than its double-digit share in California and several northeast states. Florida's utilities have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years on political spending aimed at blocking any loosening of their grip on the market. As the Times reported, Florida utilities make money at virtually every turn - producing power, transmitting and selling it - and they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. That's another reason why Florida lawmakers have frustrated efforts across a broader front to expand the use of renewable energy sources.
State regulators opened a window last year by determining that one of the country's largest residential solar companies, San Francisco-based Sunrun, was allowed to lease solar energy equipment for homes in Florida. The company charges a fixed amount for the equipment, which is leased for 20 years. Advocates hailed the move as a step toward breaking down the up-front cost of solar, making it more affordable for many families to realize long-term savings. Across the state, communities have launched dozens of solar co-ops, enabling homeowners to receive discounted pricing when they hire installers by using their bulk purchasing power. A third opened in Hillsborough County in April.
Consumer advocates are pushing a constitutional amendment proposed for the 2020 ballot that would allow Floridians to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce solar energy themselves. As of Wednesday, the proposal had almost 340,000 signatures of the 766,200 it needs to make the ballot. The ballot language still must be approved by the Florida Supreme Court, with oral arguments scheduled for Aug. 28.
Policy choices are best left to the political arena. But the constitutional amendment effort shows hundreds of thousands of Floridians want more energy choices. Solar is a natural, promising resource for Florida that should shape the state's energy future.