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Eight Hurdles to a Proposed Constitutional Amendment for Solar Choice in Florida

florida and ballot measures on solar

A sea-change is brewing in Florida and is shaping up to be the most closely watched 2016 referendum on any state’s election ballot. Solar advocates are on track to ask voters to permit entities other than monopoly utilities to sell power generated by solar energy systems in the Sunshine State.  

With strong support by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund under the name “Floridians for Solar Choice” and backed by evangelical Christians, Libertarians, clean energy professionals and Florida retailers, as well as environmental activists, the ballot push appears to be gaining momentum with each passing week.  Just last week, the ballot initiative secured the required signatures in a petition drive – about 68,000 – to seek authorization from the Florida Supreme Court to place the initiative on the 2016 ballot. The unofficial overall tally at this writing exceeded 120,000.

Given that Florida harbors the most potential for solar in any state east of the Mississippi River and is the country’s largest underperforming solar market, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The ballot push comes as both Georgia and South Carolina have taken recent steps to enable markets for solar. The pendulum for solar in the Southeast U.S. is clearly swinging toward solar energy and the economic and environmental gains that come with it.

Florida is one of only five states where laws expressly prohibit residents and businesses from buying solar directly from anyone other than the electric utility, including North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Georgia.  A law awaiting the Governor’s signature in Georgia would remove the Peach Tree state from that list.  Similar legislation is underway in North Carolina. Currently 24 states allow for third-party financing agreements while several others do not directly outlaw the agreements.

Advocates for the referendum already have succeeded where other ballot initiatives have stumbled early on. While leaders acknowledge they have a long way to go, the extent to which they can raise something on the order of $10 million while securing additional support from traditionally conservative groups will likely determine whether a referendum gets on the ballot and then earns the support of at least 60 percent of those voting.

Pegeen Hanrahan, a former Mayor of Gainesville, FL who managed the campaign to secure a successful ballot referendum last year to protect Florida’s water and land legacy, commended the solar ballot push for all that advocates have achieved thus far. But she cautioned they need to prepare for vocal opposition with deep pockets backed by traditional utility and fossil fuel interests.

“We’ve taken a lot of early fire and we’re only getting stronger,” said Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has operations throughout the Southeast U.S. “Floridians for Solar Choice has assembled the broadest and deepest coalition of conservatives in support of clean energy that has ever been assembled by any group. They truly believe in this effort. This could change the political calculus in Florida.”

Here’s my early take on the hurdles that proponents face. With the right message, each of them is not only surmountable but they could be turned on their ‘head’ and used against opponents.

Comments are welcome, especially those that identify other obstacles the advocates must overcome and advantages that could help secure its passage.

Hurdle #1:

Explain in layperson’s terms what the petition would actually do. As petitions typically are worded, this can be a stumbling block. You be the judge if the proposed wording, below, will help voters understand what’s at stake. Click through the see the entire proposed referendum here.

BALLOT TITLE: Limits or Prevents Barriers to Local Solar Electricity Supply

BALLOT SUMMARY: Limits or prevents government and electric utility imposed barriers to supplying local solar electricity. Local solar electricity supply is the non-utility supply of solar generated electricity from a facility rated up to 2 megawatts to customers at the same or contiguous property as the facility. Barriers include government regulation of local solar electricity suppliers’ rates, service and territory, and unfavorable electric utility rates, charges, or terms of service imposed on local solar electricity customers.

When asked if the ballot text could edited for clarity, Stephen Smith, said “once you start gaining signatures the wording cannot be changed.”

Hurdle #2

Raise at least $8 million and perhaps more to pay for TV advertising and other advocacy communications. By comparison, the referendum to protect public lands reportedly spent about $6.1 million and prevailed with about 75% of those voting without any significant opposition. Here’s more on why a solar referendum faces much longer odds of securing support from the required 60% of those voting.

Hurdle #3

Aggressively promote the petition drive so that it can go viral, perhaps with a credible spokesperson and dozens of additional and diverse allies throughout Florida whom the public would recognize and take seriously.

Hurdle #4:

Persuade at least 850,000 Florida voters to sign the petition in order to get the required 683,149 certified signatures needed. Voting authorities usually disqualify a large percentage on review. (the opposition has no role in this, it is strictly a state Department of election exercise. Here is the website with the official numbers so far, more are under review .

Hurdle #5:

Prepare for and fight back against the inevitable onslaught of advertisements and aggressive PR tactics by Duke Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light. Their business models depend on holding on to their exclusive rights to sell electricity. Rest assured they will stop at nothing legal to defend it.

Among the ways ballot advocates can prepare or fight back is to draw a sharp contrast between how the parent companies of Florida Power & Light (NextEra Energy) and Duke Energy Florida (Duke Energy) are investing in solar systems for their shareholders outside of Florida but at nowhere near the same pace within Florida. NextEra brags about “becoming America’s clean energy leader;” but what about back on its home turf? Communicating that hypocrisy is no easy task. To be credible, it will require deft messaging and execution. 

Hurdle #6:

In ways that will resonate with voters, point out how dysfunctional energy policy is in Florida and how accountability to consumers is sorely lacking.  And that is a big reason why Florida is falling farther behind other states even in the Southeast. The extent to which investor owned utilities provide a lot of financial support to the most important state lawmakers, who in turn confirm the Governor’s nominations for the Florida Public Service Commission, begs for consumer education and enhanced awareness. That said, this may not be the platform to do that.  

Hurdle #7:

Respond persuasively to objections from opponents and their allies that solar energy is subsidized for the wealthy few who can afford it.

Hurdle #8:

Quickly and decisively correct false claims by the referendum’s opponents. One example from this earlier this month:  the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) Florida said recent solar energy policies in Georgia “have resulted in rate hikes and did not result in solar becoming any more economically viable.”

But Politifact.com, which vets such claims, stated “the program in Georgia is thriving”and the statement is completely wrong: “Part of Georgia’s implementation plan was that using solar power wouldn’t affect rates, and it hasn’t.” Politifact’s source? None other than Georgia Power. For that, Politifact declared that AFP’s claim deserved its lowest rating a “ridiculous falsehood,” aka “Pants on Fire”.

Image

Leaders from these organizations are leading and/or supporting the solar ballot initiative in Florida for the 2016 General Election ballot. They spoke at a press conference January 14, 2015 in Tallahassee. Standing left to right:

  • Randy Miller; Executive Vice President of Governmental Affairs, Florida Retail Federation
  • Tory Perfetti; Florida Director, Conservatives for Energy Freedom and Chair, Floridians for Solar Choice 
  • Debbie Dooley; Founder, Conservatives for Energy Freedom and Co-founder, Tea Party Movement 
  • Dr. Stephen A. Smith; Executive Director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE)
  • Christopher Delp; Corporate Counsel, WTEC (bald head)
  • Mike Antheil; Executive Director, Florida Solar Energy Industries Association (FlaSEIA; arms folded)
  • Ash Mason; Southeastern Energy Policy Director, Christian Coalition of America
  • Alex Snitker; Vice Chair, Libertarian Party of Florida

Content Discussion

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on March 30, 2015

Jim, how will “Floridians for Solar Choice” compensate Florida utilities for use of their multi-billion-dollar infrastructure, or are utilities supposed to gladly absorb solar entrepreneurs’ expenses? That’s not only bad business – an investor-owned utility would likely be liable for abdicating their fiduciary duty. So the cost will be passed on to people who can’t afford to join in the big happy rightwing privatization-fest.

Florida NAACP President Adora Obi Nweze:

“Rooftop solar provides savings to homeowners by lowering their consumption of electricity from the electric grid and through an accounting gimmick that compensates rooftop solar owners at a cost higher than what it costs to actually produce the electricity. And guess who gets to pick up those costs? You do in the form of higher electric bills. We support solar. We even think that the accounting mechanism, officially known as net metering can work as long as the economics are fair. And right now, they’re not. This means that someone is getting wealthy off of a subsidy that everyone else has the privilege of paying. That’s not right. That’s not fair. And that’s why we’re speaking up.”

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on March 30, 2015

The solar industry trade group SEIA‘s latest data once again shows the superior economics of utility scale solutions:  utility solar is 31% cheaper than commercial, and 55% cheaper than residential.

Given that typical regulated utilities only have profit margins of around 10% (see WSJ), the only way these hypothetical alternatives to the “monopoly” providers could provide competitive pricing for their customers would be for them to lobby for a set of rules which would effectively let them take money from other electricity customers.

The electrical system is too complicated to regulate using ballet initiatives.  The only possible outcome is huge profits at the expense of the public, for which ever unscrupulous company campaigns most aggressively.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on March 31, 2015

Hurdle #7:

Respond persuasively to objections from opponents and their allies that solar energy is subsidized for the wealthy few who can afford it.”

I suppose you mean “Respond credibly” rather than “Respond persuasively”. The word persuasive has a negative connotation in the sense that it can mean to cause people to believe something that is not true. The word “credible” does not have this negative connotation.

persuasive

    adjective per·sua·sive \-ˈswā-siv, -ziv\

: able to cause people to do or believe something : able to persuade people


credible

    adjective cred·i·ble \ˈkre-də-bəl\ 

: able to be believed : reasonable to trust or believe


Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on March 31, 2015

“It shall be the policy of the state to encourage and promote local small scale solar generated electricity production and enhance the availability of solar power to customers.”

Quite aside from the economics or potential environmental desirability of small scale solar power, is this really the kind of language – promoting a particular technology at a particular scale – that should be included in a State  Constitution

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on March 31, 2015

Bas, there are twenty times as many Americans as Dutch, the U.S. occupies 240 times the land area of the Netherlands, and in the U.S. it’s still mostly up to states to regulate electricity.

I wouldn’t object to nationalizing the U.S. grid; there are many, many people who would. How much would it cost to buy out utilities? A rough guess might be $500 billion, would that money come from microgrid connection fees?

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on April 1, 2015

I don’t know where Bas is getting his information on the Dutch energy system from. It seems he is living in a fantasy world.

In the Netherlands there are serious problems in the electricity market. We have unlimited net-metering policy for rooftop solar, as well as generous subsidy of wind turbines, which is causing the same problems as currently in Germany. Our electricity market is already subjected to frequent price-dumping of German subsidized power across the border and we are amplifying this problem at an exponential rate by copying German policy. The renewable energy subsidy policy in the Netherlands is so disastrously designed that wind-turbine owners are actually scrapping and then rebuilding their turbines way before end of technical life, in order to extend their subsidy hand-outs. Most recently, politicians have decided that people living in the vicinity of wind turbines need to be financially compensated for the loss of their living quality and home-value. This will redouble the subsidy tsunami. All the stable electric utilities in the Netherlands are haemorrhaging cash, rushing to bankrupcy, just like in Germany. The state-owned grid company Tennet is also losing money and will require state-aid, because it is required by law to connect wind-farms to the grid at a loss, even in Germany where it also owns grid-sections.

Just like in Germany, Dutch politicians are currently engaged behind the scenes in frantic activity in order to try to stop the financial meltdown in the energy sector and the subsidy system as well as making sure the lights stay on. They are dealing with an impending financial crisis greater than the 2008 financial meltdown in terms of cost to society.

The small-to-medium business sector has also woken up to smell the coffee. They are worried that the cost of the mass subsidized electricity system will be dumped on them three times, namely through:

– the increasing cost of energy needed to power their own activities

– the cost of their employees asking them for salary compensation for their increased cost of living due to high energy costs.

– the cost of their employees have less spending power to buy their products.

 Meanwhile, Dutch citizens remain oblivious to most of the problems. They are being told by the primary government-sponsored Dutch energy research institute than ‘solar energy is lowering their electric bills’. What they are not told is that this effect is purely, solely and squarely the result of heavy subsidies for rooftop solar, for which they are paying themselves. Hence, some populist political parties (in fact, all political parties) are still promoting the lie that solar/wind power is saving the Dutch people money, even while they are trying to prevent guaranteed financial meltdown behind the scenes.