For obvious reasons, anyone who benefits from the generation and distribution of energy produced by fossil fuels has nothing to gain from the expanded use of renewable energy. For example, law requires utility companies to accept excess energy produced by consumer solar energy producers, a process called net metering, and pay them at the “retail” rate. Utilities argue that this rate doesn’t cover their fixed costs for transporting and delivering power, such as wires, poles, meters and other infrastructure, so these costs are shifted to non-solar customers.
In addition, solar users still use power from the grid when solar power isn't sufficient or available, on cloudy days for example. Utilities companies believe solar producers should be paid at the lower “wholesale” rate, or better yet, not at all. However, attacking solar power directly would be a public relations nightmare, so renewables opponents are taking a different route: initiatives at the ballot box.
A referendum in Florida is a classic example of this type of action. In August, Florida residents were presented with a choice of adding Amendment 4 to the state constitution that offered property tax breaks for residents and businesses who install solar panels and eliminate a tax on solar equipment. While residential customers already enjoyed tax relief from an earlier measure earlier in 2016, Amendment 4 added commercial and industrial customers as well.
Amendment 4 faced little opposition -- the legislature unanimously approved placing the question on the ballot -- and voters approved it 72.62% to 27.38%. These incentives are almost certain to increase solar panel installations in Florida, which although blessed with abundant sunshine gets only about 5% of its energy from renewables, mostly biomass not solar. Analysts nevertheless predict that renewables could account for 33% of total state energy capacity by 2023.
Faced with the approval of Amendment 4, the state’s utilities along with ExxonMobil, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and other groups threw everything they had into getting another constitutional Amendment question (Amendment 1) added to the November ballot. Amendment 4 would give residents the right to produce solar energy (currently already provided by state statute) into the state constitution, and let state and local governments ensure that residents who choose not to produce solar power would never be required to subsidize its production.
However, it didn’t take long for opponents to discover what it would really do if approved. Although Amendment 1 was written to appear “pro-solar”, it was mostly the opposite. As residents have the right through state law to own or lease solar panels, adding it to the constitution would adding no additional protection. The fossil camp claimed that enshrining it in the constitution would keep unscrupulous businesses from wreaking havoc, as has been the case Arizona. Opponents noted that this not happening in Florida and that the state would never allow it to.
More insidious was the fact that the amendment could also allow lawmakers to prohibit net metering, as it could be construed as subsidizing solar power production. If lawmakers did so, utilities could refuse to pay for excess power or reduce payments from the retail to wholesale rate, which would benefit their bottom lines.
This resulted in a massive onslaught from opponents of the measure, who stated that the real goal of Amendment 1 was to make sure utility companies maintained their control of the energy market. The outcries for voting “no” ranged from a huge number of local and national organizations, businesses, media, as well as noteworthy Floridians like Jimmy Buffett, author Carl Hiassen, and former governor Bob Graham.
Support for the amendment was strong almost until election day, but opponents were able to show that it was bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry and its supporters. A leaked recording of someone from the fossil fuel camp admitting that it would “completely negate anything they [the pro-solar camp] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road”, also helped shed light on the actual purpose of the amendment. Although 50.79% of voters voted yes and only 49.21% voted no, the amendment needs 60% approval to pass.
While the battle in Florida has been won by pro-solar interests, the war is far from over, and the Sunshine State is just one example. Similar contests are taking place in many other states as well, and are increasing in intensity with the popularity of producing energy from the Sun. Until the pro- and anti-solar constituencies can make peace, more of the wrangling Floridians experienced is sure to come.