This Election, Floridians Will Decide Who Pays the Brunt for Solar Power

This article was originally published on November 8, 2016 inThe Hill.

With all the intensity surrounding the presidential and Senate races in the battleground state of Florida, it’s easy to overlook other important issues facing Florida’s voters when they visit the polls today. One such issue is Amendment 1, a ballot initiative that addresses solar energy.

Amendment 1 would strengthen consumer protections for all Floridians, ensure fairness in the energy market, and guarantee availability of solar power to those who want it.

Solar energy has been the subject of controversy in a number of states across the country, stemming from contentious issues like net metering (when surplus power from solar panels is transmitted to a public-utility power grid) and deceptive sales practices resulting in actions by state attorneys general. In 2014, several lawmakers sent letters to the Federal Trade Commission and to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, asking them to investigate solar panel sales practices and third-party leasing companies.

These companies often promise free or reduced-cost products, lifetime subsidies, free maintenance, and the ability to “sell power back to the grid” indefinitely. However, the reality is that if the companies go out of business or if state or federal regulations change, all promises are rendered moot and consumers may be left with the bill for costly or broken solar panels.

Officially, Amendment 1:

establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.

State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to 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.

What this means is that all Floridians would be allowed to house solar equipment on their property.

In this regard, the bill clearly encourages the use of renewable energy, and also protects property-owners from special interest legislation that would restrict private use of solar equipment, which could effectively force consumers to purchase solar power from politically favored corporations.

At the same time, the proposal ensures that Florida’s taxpayers would not bear the burden of involuntarily financing the growing solar industry — people who do not use solar power will no longer be legally required to subsidize those individuals and businesses that do.

This second goal is an important one. In 2013, Louisiana conducted a study and found their net metering subsidies resulted in $89 million negative net benefits to electricity rate-payers, meaning the costs to non-solar customers were greater than the benefit.

Recently, Arizona’s largest utility found that solar customers avoid roughly $1,000 annually in costs for operating the electric grid, the cost of which is paid by non-solar customers.

Amendment 1 would also include common-sense consumer protections. Like any new industry, solar power presents an opportunity for bad actors. Due to the actions of some dishonest solar companies, many consumers have found themselves trapped in long-term equipment leasing contracts that include automatic cost escalation clauses. In other situations, homeowners have been overcharged for solar panels or have been misled about the overall cost savings of solar power.

Amendment 1 is supported by a diverse set of groups, all of which agree on the importance of the consumer protection principles that have wide appeal over a range of different industries and walks of life. These include the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the American Association of Blacks in Energy, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the NAACP.

In our deeply-divided country, it is noteworthy that such a sizable and diverse array of organizations can come together on the principles that Amendment 1 advocates.

Consumers should have the freedom to install solar and generate their own power and nobody should prevent them from doing so. At the same time, consumers who choose to not install solar panels shouldn’t have to subsidize the generally wealthier consumers who do.

Amendment 1 ensures that both of those things happen. It is a commendable approach to solar power in the Sunshine State.

Copyright: anterovium / 123RF Stock Photo

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Joseph Colangelo is Executive Director of Consumers' Research, the nation's oldest consumer-focused organization. Joseph grew up in Northern New Jersey and attended U.C. Berkeley on a Naval ROTC scholarship where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Arts with a concentration in Political Science.


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