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Saturday, Nov 17, 2018
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Editorial: Deception casts shadow over solar amendments

Efforts to confuse voters and undermine a ballot initiative that would open the solar energy market in Florida are on full display these days wherever the public gathers.

People representing the utility-backed and deceptively named Consumers for Smart Solar are gathering the signatures of registered voters in direct competition with an initiative by a group called Floridians for Solar Choice that is backed by diverse interests that do represent consumers.

If you are inclined to support an effort to expand solar energy policy in Florida, then sign the Floridians for Solar Choice petition. But keep walking if someone approaches you to peddle the similar-sounding Consumers for Smart Solar.

This sort of deception is an abuse of the petition process used to change the state’s constitution. You may recall the state Legislature tried a similar stunt in 2010 to undermine efforts to change the way political districts are drawn in Florida. Considering how the Fair Districts amendments forced needed change in Tallahassee, it’s fortunate the deception failed.

This time around, an effort backed by the big utilities in Florida is confusing voters who want to support the expansion of solar power options. The amendment would do the opposite by codifying in the state constitution existing laws that prohibit consumers or businesses from selling solar power.

By contrast, the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment, backed by the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, environmental groups and the League of Women Voters, among others, would allow businesses and homeowners to sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power with some restrictions.

Two megawatts is estimated to serve the power needs of a Wal-Mart or a neighborhood of between 200 and 700 homes.

The change in the law, if the amendment were adopted, would allow businesses and homeowners with solar panels to sell power to their neighbors or tenants.

Selling any form of power is the exclusive right of the big utility companies under current law, and that has kept small solar producers from selling directly to consumers, depressing the solar market.

Despite being known as the Sunshine State, Florida lags behind other states in solar production. It is one of only a handful of states to prohibit businesses and consumers from selling directly to consumers.

The utilities are reacting to this threat by pouring money into the competing amendment. They were joined by the Florida Attorney General’s Office in an attempt earlier this year to keep the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment from the 2016 ballot, arguing the language is misleading to voters.

But the Florida Supreme Court found otherwise, and the amendment can appear on the November ballot next year provided the backers gather the signatures of more than 683,000 registered voters in Florida. It would then need the support of 60 percent or more of the voters to become law.

According to the amendment’s summary language, it would limit or prevent “government and electric utility-imposed barriers to supplying local solar electricity.”

That would free a Publix to install solar panels and sell excess power to neighboring businesses, or a homeowner to install rooftop panels and sell excess energy to neighbors. It would offer choices to consumers in Florida and expand the use of a clean and renewable energy source.

The Florida Legislature has demonstrated little interest over the years in doing anything that might upset the utilities, leaving the backers of expanding solar options to seek permission directly from the voters through the petition route. Registered voters who want to support solar expansion in Florida should take a second look before signing a petition to make sure they aren’t being duped by utilities wanting to protect their monopolies.

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