Amendment 1: Friend or Foe?

10/20/16

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Sunshine State voters will once again see an amendment regarding solar energy on the ballot this November. Some solar enthusiasts are concerned though that Florida Amendment 1 is harboring a hidden agenda that just might stifle a relatively young renewable energy movement.

Not to be confused with Amendment 4, which created favorable ad valorem tax breaks for consumers who chose to install solar equipment on their homes, Amendment 1 addresses consumers, mainly non-solar ones. The title voters will see on the ballot reads, “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.”

There are two main components to the initiative and both fall more on the side of redundancy than efficiency. The first part of the amendment addresses the establishment of a constitutional right to own or lease solar equipment, which is already allowed under Florida statutory law, Chapter 163.04.

The second, and by far most important, addresses the “retention” of state and local governmental abilities, specifically in regards to protecting consumers who do not wish to install solar panels. The carefully written ballot language drops a subtle but definitive implication that solar powered consumers – who remain connected to the grid – will inevitably cost non-solar utility customers more money.

“We leave the current government structure of having the rights to protect consumers, to having the rights to regulate this energy, but every other energy, to make sure that it’s safe and fair,” said Screven Watson on behalf of Consumers for Smart Solar. “We leave government as it is today. We don’t expand government control in any way.”

Watson, a former executive director for the Democratic Party of Florida, defended the committee’s stance several times, insisting that Amendment 1 is “pro-solar,” despite numerous editorials saying otherwise. Watson admits that the solar industry in Florida is expanding and he hopes that the proposed ballot amendment, following closely on the heels of Amendment 4, will get more people “focused on solar,” but in the right way.

That “right way,” according to Watson, is government oversight in terms of monitoring any potential cost shifts that are a direct result of utility customers switching to rooftop solar power.

“Look, we can’t burden those people whose bills will go up, will necessarily go up, if they can’t afford solar and they are getting the undue burden of keeping up the grid,” said Watson. “There will be no choice other than to raise the rates on people who can least afford it.”

Regardless of whether or not you currently use solar energy, the ballot language can be read as a fair warning of impending cost increases to those who remain connected to the electrical grid in Florida, which accounts for a majority of the state.

One of the most questionable aspects of Amendment 1 is the massive outpouring of support – in the form of campaign dollars – from electrical utility companies like Duke Energy and Florida Power and Light Company. As of Sept. 29, Consumers for Smart Solar had received over $21 million in donations. Roughly half of that came from the two previously mentioned power companies.

At this point, there should be a clear distinction between “clean” and “dirty” energy. Most, if not all, of the utility companies in Florida rely on fossil fuels, coal to be more specific. The kilowatts of power produced from coal are labeled as “dirty,” non-renewable energy.

The word dirty obviously implies a negative connotation, but the more pertinent phrase in that last sentence is non-renewable. Energy derived from coal isn’t dirty solely because of the carbon dioxide emissions it produces at combustion. It’s also dirty because, more times than not, there is no power regeneration at the point of consumption. Energy comes in. Energy is used. Energy is gone.

Power regeneration at the point of consumption, also known as distributed generation, is the driving force behind solar energy and what makes it such a viable and clean option for people who live in sunshine-laden states like Florida. Distributed generation is also the antithesis of an economical business model if you are a major utility company relying on non-renewable fossil fuels.

“We actually work together, because our system, our solar electric, is grid connected,” says President of A1A Solar Pete Wilking. “This system is actually co-mingling electricity with the grid power.”

And a vast majority of those who have switched to rooftop solar remain locked to the grid, for lack of an energy storage unit where they can reserve those clean kilowatts of power. This is exactly where the not-so-friendly coexistence between solar customers and utility companies resides.

Excess power that Wilking sells to JEA offsets his utility bills through a process known as net-metering. Under Florida law, owners of renewable energy systems can net-meter their systems and gain credit for generating more power than they use. The excess power is then fed back into the grid for other non-solar customers to use.

While utility-backed Consumers for Smart Solar and other proponents of Amendment 1 might say net-metering is a good thing, the legal requirement to purchase and expend excess solar energy, only compounds the economic issue for utility companies and forces them to make up lost revenue elsewhere.

“JEA is getting revenue from my excess solar power, but being charged to my neighbors even though JEA did not produce those green kilowatt hours that went back to them,” Wilking said. “So, what it does is it actually helps strengthen the grid, because there are losses in transmission when you go distances over power lines.”

The advertising campaign for Amendment 1 relies heavily on what Wilking refers to as “scare tactics.” When questioned about specific instances where government could further protect consumers under Amendment 1, Watson referred to third-party leasing scams in places like Arizona.

Watson said there are numerous instances of homeowners getting conned into signing 20-year contracts with companies that lease energy and photovoltaic paneling to consumers at monthly rates with included cost escalators. All of which, is completely legal and has been regarded as an affordable way to start using clean, renewable energy.

Google struggled to return any results of the numerous horror stories Watson referred to, but it should be noted that third-party solar leasing is not currently offered in Florida.

“There has been instances in other parts of the country where there have been poor solar contractors not delivering, but it’s really not the utilities companies’ job to interfere to that level just to protect a monopolistic business model,” Wilking said.

Floridians for Solar Choice, the political committee leading the charge against Amendment 1, failed to get a measure on the November ballot, which would have allowed third-party solar options, as well as limit government and utility company oversight in the buying and selling of solar power among the citizenry.

From the standpoint of many solar power contractors like Wilking, there is not much in Amendment 1 for the actual consumer. Wilking says all of the interests lie with the monopoly utility companies and that this initiative is really just a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“We have the technology to capitalize on renewables and unfortunately the utility companies have billions of dollars of infrastructure, but they are resisting to embrace distributed generation because it’s difficult,” Wilking said. “They don’t want to make that transition. So, slowing it down is the path of least resistance.”

While Watson argues that Amendment 1 doesn’t illicitly imply that solar power costs non-solar customers more money, make no mistake, a vote for Amendment 1 is a vote in favor of more government oversight. Whether or not that means making clean energy options less affordable thru penalties and restrictions imposed by utility companies remains to be seen.

(© 2016 WTLV)


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