How advocates defeated Florida’s anti-solar ballot measure

An unusual alliance helped protect a consumer friendly feature of solar rooftop panels in the Sun State.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Solar installers from Baker Electric place solar panels on the roof of a residential home in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, Calif., on Oct. 14, 2016.

A Florida ballot measure that would have laid the groundwork for restricting the expansion of solar rooftop panels failed on Tuesday after garnering less than the 60 percent of the voter support it needed to pass.

The fight over the measure was particularly heated given its design: It sought to amend the state constitution to affirm citizens’ right to own or lease solar panels – a right they already had – and more controversially, guarantee that non-solar customers were "not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do."

Utility companies saw the initiative as a way of turning the language of solar advocates in their favor, while solar advocates called it plain deceitful. At the heart of the dispute was a consumer friendly feature called "net metering," which allows solar panel owners to deliver unused energy gathered by the units back to the power grid, and receive retail-rate credit from the utility companies.

Utility companies lose out on it, and claim it shifts costs onto non-solar consumers. But the policy, and the use of rooftop solar more broadly, appeals to a swath of Floridians that includes environmentalists, tea party free marketers, solar companies, and elected officials. A grass-roots coalition representing these interests, Floridians for Solar Choice, was ultimately able to down an initiative that had $25 million in utility-company funding behind it.

"People think it’s conservative versus liberal, but in Florida on energy, it’s really the utilities versus the people," said Steve Smith, a board member of the coalition and clean-energy advocate, in an interview with Grist this month.

Tea party members, meanwhile, see it as a question of opening up Florida’s utility market to more than the four private companies that dominate it. Florida law prohibits solar companies from selling directly to consumers; they have to first go through one of the four existing utility companies, which have exclusive rights to selling power to residents of the state, according to PolitiFact.

"It’s uncharacteristic for Florida to be one of four states that doesn’t allow the sale of energy outside of government monopolies," Tory Perfetti, a director at the Florida branch of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and board member at Floridians for Solar Choice, told Grist.

The campaign against the initiative, which had comparatively meager financing, got a significant leg up toward the end of October when one of the key policy voices behind it – Sal Nuzzo, vice president of the James Madison Institute, a think tank with close links to Florida utilities and funding from Koch Industries – was recorded making comments to a meeting of conservative activists that seemed to confirm opponents’ accusation that the initiative was deceitfully designed.

"As you guys look at policy in your state, or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: Solar polls very well," he said then, according to the Miami Herald.

"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 leaked recording ended up galvanizing opposition to the initiative, and not just from local figures: In addition to critical comments from former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham, Jimmy Buffett recorded a video about it, and even Elon Musk, the investor and SolarCity owner, tweeted about what he called a "calculated attempt to deceive Florida voters."

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