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    Categories: environment

Sunshine on the Ballot, Shining a Light on Florida’s Two Solar Initiatives

by Jeremy Morrison

Florida voters have two different solar power initiatives before them on the ballots this year. Or, as Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente might say, one solar initiative and another “masquerading as a pro-solar initiative.”

The two constitutional amendments are entirely unrelated, with one appearing on this month’s primary ballot and the other appearing on November’s general election ballot. The first, Amendment 4, seeks to expand and extend property tax incentives, while the second, Amendment 1, is backed primarily by the utilities industry and has environmentalists and those in the solar industry lined up in opposition.

“The real key thing here for anybody that’s confused is to look where the solar businesses are,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, one the organizations supporting Amendment 4.

Amendment 4, or the Florida Property Tax Exemptions for Renewable Energy Equipment amendment, is pretty simple. If approved during the August primary, this amendment will exempt the value of a solar power system from a residential or commercial property’s assessed value when it comes time to calculate ad valorem taxes.

This amendment, placed on the primary ballot by the state legislature, extends for 20 years an already-in-place residential ad valorem exemption and expands the measure to include commercial properties. The amendment — backed by organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the Solar Energy Industries Association — is suppose to encourage the installation of solar power systems.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this will get more solar deployed in the state,” Smith said.

In Pensacola, Nathan Kercher, of Sun Farm Energy, said that the cost of a residential solar system varies depending on size, but that they typically run between $15,000 and $45,000. And while the local solar company employee is supportive of the property tax incentives offered by Amendment 4, he said that the company doesn’t tend to get inquiries about the subject.

“I’ve never once had a client ask about it increasing the assessed value,” Kercher said.

He was less ambiguous about Florida’s other solar-related amendment, November’s Amendment 1.

“Our opinion is that it’s not particularly beneficial for us or our customers,” Kercher said of Amendment 1. “It’s not adding anything new for solar, it’s adding restrictions.”

Smith puts it another way.

“We call it a monopoly wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he said of the measure. “There are no solar companies in Florida or anywhere in the country supporting it because they know it’s a lie.”

But Smith would say that. He sits on the board of Floridians for Solar Choice, which challenged Amendment 1 before the state’s supreme court, arguing that it was misleading (the measure made the ballot on a split 4-3 opinion from the court).

Amendment 1, or the Florida Solar Energy Subsidies and Personal Solar Use Initiative, seeks to add a section in the state constitution codifying an individual’s right to own or lease solar energy equipment for personal use, while also enacting protections that enable local and state governments to ensure that residents not using solar power do not have to “subsidize” its production by those who do.

“It’s pretty basic and it’s not real long,” explained Jim Kallinger. “A lot of these ballot initiatives have what I call legalese behind them, but this is pretty straight forward.”

Kallinger is co-chairman of Consumers for Smart Solar, a group pushing Amendment 1. He’s also a former Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives, a certified general contractor and president of the Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Kallinger explained that Amendment 1 would not grant any rights not currently available — people can already own or lease solar equipment for their personal use  — but it would define those rights in the constitution.

“This creates kind of a stable environment and will kind of energize solar energy,” he said.

Kallinger also points out that the amendment will protect non-solar power consumers from paying more due to their solar counterparts, or as the ballot language states, “ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”

“We are codifying in the constitution that the Public Service Commission, that they cannot require nonusers of solar to subsidize those who do,” Kallinger said, explaining that the protections are necessary to avoid “getting us in a situation like a lot of other states where, yeah, you have a lot of solar, but everybody’s paying for it.”

The former state rep detailed “the ugly politics of it all,” saying that Amendment 1 is also designed to “avoid some of the horror stories coming out of Arizona,” referring to third party solar power providers. He said opposition to the measure is being fueled by “outside groups” who wish to “establish their business model in our state.”

“They could come in and set up as a utility, without oversight,” Kallinger said.

But critics of Amendment 1, like Smith — whose Floridians for Solar Choice attempted to get a measure on this year’s ballot that would have allowed for individuals and businesses to produce and sell up to two megawatts of solar generated power to buyers at the same or contiguous property — charge that the initiative is a thinly veiled power play by large utility companies, and point to the effort’s main financial backers: Florida Power and Light Company, Gulf Power Company, Tampa Electric Company, and Duke Energy.

“The minute customers start generating their own power, they’re not buying as much from the power company,” Smith said, adding that there was no evidence of non-solar customers subsidizing solar power and raised concerns about what impact such an amendment would have on concepts like net-metering, where utility companies purchase a solar customer’s excess power.

But Amendment 1’s critics aren’t making too much noise about it yet. They’re afraid the message might confuse voters as they head to the polls to vote on Amendment 4 — the property tax exemption amendment — in the primary.

“Absolutely, we’re very concerned about that,” Smith said, adding that the opposition message will begin to be amplified as voters start to eye the general election.

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