Here in Florida, we have had two solar initiatives on our ballot during the current election cycle. One of them, Amendment 4, was on last month’s primary ballot and received little organized opposition. It was nonetheless controversial because the other initiative, Amendment 1 on the November general-election ballot, is worded in a manner that makes it—and Amendment 4—confusing to the uninformed voter.
Amendment 4 was relatively straightforward. It was intended to encourage residential solar installations by providing tax exemptions for solar panels (and other renewable-energy equipment). Because it helps Florida’s big utilities by reducing their tax liability on that type of equipment, major state electric power providers, such as FPL and Duke Energy, did not oppose it.
Not so with the other initiative. Florida is the third-largest rooftop solar market in the United States, and yet only approximately 1 percent of its electric power is from solar. Surprisingly, New Jersey, the Garden State, has more installed solar-power capacity than does Florida, the Sunshine State. That’s because New Jersey and most other states have policies that encourage solar and other renewable-energy strategies. Florida is one of only four states that prohibits its residents from buying electricity from anyone other than a regulated utility, so power-purchase agreements between property owners and solar-power providers that are not regulated utilities are illegal.
This led to an effort by Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC) to place on this year’s ballot a constitutional amendment that would have allowed third parties (someone other than utilities) to sell up to 2 kW of power to consumers per day. In December 2015, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the proposed solar-choice amendment met legal standards and, with enough petition signatures, could be placed on the ballot. The confusion began when utilities opposed the measure and initiated a competing amendment with a similar title promoted by a group with a similar name.
The utility-backed initiative, known as Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice and filed by Consumers for Smart Solar, was challenged before the Florida Supreme Court by FSC, a grassroots coalition of more than 70 organizations. FSC was joined by the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, Florida Energy Freedom, Progress Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and Earthjustice. In March, the court approved placement of the utility-backed amendment on the November ballot. Not surprisingly, that petition gained sufficient signatures to appear on the ballot, while the FSC consumer-backed petition did not (FSC claims it was significantly outspent, perhaps as much as 5-to-1).
Regardless of the merits of the amendment itself, voters should be concerned anytime a ballot initiative is worded in such a way as to intentionally confuse and mislead them. Although a majority of the court approved the amendment's wording, three justices opposed it. In a scathing dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote, "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." She went on to write, "The biggest problem with the proposed amendment lies not with what the (ballot) summary says, but, rather, with what it does not say.”
Florida voters, please study the measure carefully before voting in November, and voters in other states, please scrutinize ballot language, especially when it addresses technical/technology issues. Those of us in the HVAC industry generally have some level of technical education and training, so non-technical acquaintances may rely on us to decipher technical language that may be intentionally confusing. Be informed!