Alternative energy is booming in the United States, despite tough price competition from the fossil fuel industry. A renewal of Federal tax credits for photovoltaic installations on private homes has given the solar-power industry a boost. But utility companies are pushing back, fighting to modify or overturn state-level policies that guarantee a buyer for any excess power produced on sunny days by rooftop solar panels. This spring, there's action on that front in several states, including Florida, Massachusetts, and Maine.
In Florida, solar-power advocates are reacting with dismay to the Florida Supreme Court's decision to include a utility-backed initiative on the upcoming November ballot that would amend the state's constitution to include language relating to rooftop photovoltaic power generation on businesses and homes. Backed by millions of dollars in contributions from Florida power companies, organizations pushing the measure were able to collect enough signatures to place the proposal on the ballot, while a competing proposal by solar-power advocates fell short. The battle between the two measures has left considerable confusion about who exactly is pushing for what in the state's solar power industry.
In Florida, the Supreme Court must approve all ballot measures, certifying that they contain clear language and are not misleading. And in fact, the court has approved this example — but only by a narrow 4-to-3 margin that reveals a sharp disagreement about whether the industry initiative is a straightforward proposal, or a thinly disguised wolf in sheep's clothing.
The majority opinion for the Supreme Court decision reads, "The opponents assert that the ballot title and summary contain misleading terms, some of which purportedly constitute political or emotional rhetoric. However, when read within the full context of the ballot title and summary, none of the terms contained within the ballot title and summary are misleading and none of the terms constitute political or emotional rhetoric."
But in voting against the decision to authorize the ballot measure, Florida Justice Barbara Pariente strongly disagreed, writing for the dissenting three justices: "Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware.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. The ballot title is … misleading by its focus on 'Solar Energy Choice,' when no real choice exists for those who favor expansion of solar energy."
The Ballotpedia website offers a description and full text of each proposed ballot initiative. For the utility-backed measure that will appear on the ballot, see: "Florida Right to Solar Energy Choice Initiative, Amendment 1 (2016)." For the measure that fell short of collecting enough signatures, see: "Florida Right to Produce and Sell Solar Energy Initiative (2016)."
For local Florida coverage of the controversy, see: "Florida Supreme Court says utility-backed solar amendment can go on ballot," by William R. Levesque (Tampa Bay Times); "Florida Supreme Court OKs solar ballot proposal" (Sun Sentinel); "Split court says solar power initiative can go on ballot," by Gary Fineout (Florida Times Union).
The future of solar is also in play in the state of Maine, where party politics means that state support for solar is in jeopardy. The Portland Press-Herald has the latest (see: "Solar power development bill clears legislative committee on party-line vote," by Tux Turkel). "A bill that would greatly expand solar energy development in Maine was passed Tuesday by a legislative committee, but the party-line vote signaled that it stands little chance of becoming law," the paper reported. "The issue will next be taken up by the House. But the measure is opposed by both Republican leadership and Gov. Paul LePage, so unless Democrats can muster a two-thirds vote to override an expected veto, the bill will fail. If the Legislature doesn’t act on solar energy, the issue will next wind up at the Public Utilities Commission, which by law is set to examine net metering, a key financial incentive that helps lower the cost of solar-electric panels by paying the owners of solar panels for excess power they produce. Democrats wanted to avoid this outcome, because they fear that the PUC, which has three commissioners appointed by LePage, will gut the net-metering subsidy."
And in Massachusetts, lawmakers agreed on a compromise measure that would lift the cap on solar power generation statewide, but would reduce the reimbursement rate for surplus power put out by privately-owned solar panels. MassLive has the story here (see: "Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signs solar net metering bill," by Shira Schoenberg). "The new law will lift the cap by 3 percent for public and private projects, which are projects owned by both governments and businesses," MassLive reports. "Lawmakers and solar advocates say this is likely to let new projects go forward until 2017, when the cap is expected to be hit again. At the same time, the new law will lower the reimbursement rate by 40 percent for most new projects from the retail rate, which has recently ranged from 17 cents to 21 cents per kilowatt hour, to 11 or 12 cents per kilowatt hour. This addresses concerns by the utility companies that the subsidies given to solar projects are too expensive and other ratepayers are paying the price."