Along with the usual federal, state, and local offices to fill, Florida's official ballot this election day will contain a referendum about solar power: Amendment 1, titled “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.” The phrasing of the amendment makes it sound like a consumer-protection measure — but opponents say the measure isn't what it seems to be. And now, comments from one of the measure's lobbyist backers seem to indicate an intentional plan to confuse voters about the amendment's intended effect.
Local TV's Firstcoast News has an in-depth look at the controversy (see: "Florida Amendment 1: Friend or Foe?" by Jordan Ferrell). "Sunshine State voters will once again see an amendment regarding solar energy on the ballot this November," the station reported. "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."
The rationale for grass-roots voters to support the measure is fairly simple: if solar panel owners escape the cost of electricity for their own houses, and even get paid back for power they supply to their neighbors, then the solar owners won't be helping to pay for the generating and transmission facilities that supply electricity to the whole state. And even solar panel owners rely on that statewide and regional infrastructure when their own panels aren't producing any power, on cloudy days and at night. To be fair, the reasoning goes, solar power owners shouldn't be able to escape an equal share of the cost of a system they still depend on, just as their neighbors do.
But by attempting to put this idea into the state constitution in the form of a right, solar advocates argue, the power companies backing the amendment are making, well, a power grab — and according to solar advocates, they're trying to hide it. The Miami Herald ran a story this month quoting one of the lobbyists who helped craft Amendment 1, as he frankly told a friendly audience that the language in the amendment was a ruse (see: "Insider reveals deceptive strategy behind Florida’s solar amendment," by Mary Ellen Klas).
"Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, detailed the strategy used by the state’s largest utilities to create and finance Amendment 1 at the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit in Nashville on Oct. 2," the paper reported. "Nuzzo called the amendment, which has received more than $21 million in utility industry financing, 'an incredibly savvy maneuver' that 'would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road,' according to an audio recording of the event supplied to the Herald/Times."
The Times reported: "He offered others a recommendation: 'As you guys look at policy in your state, or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: Solar polls very well,' he said. 'To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums — if that’s the direction you want to take — use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.'"
The Times article, like the Firstcoast News story, goes on to take a deeper look at the underlying questions of fact and policy in the controversy over how to account for grid-connected rooftop solar production capabilities, installed on the roofs of homes that are also electric consumers as well as producers. Those issues are complicated: there is debate about whether solar on roofs adds to the cost burden of non-solar-equipped neighbors at all, or actually reduces the cost of the electric grid itself by adding distributed power production close to the point of power use, and reducing the need for investment in central generating and distribution infrastructure.
All of which raises a broader question: If the technical issues of an industry are complicated and the answers are in doubt, do the rules relating to the details of that industry really belong in the state constitution? That's one question Florida voters will decide on November 8. Amendment 1 has a high hurdle to get over: in order to pass, it needs the support of 60% of the voters.