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Initiative could dramatically increase solar power production in Florida

by Mike Salinero – The Tampa Tribune (Updated – January 18, 2015)

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Florida may be known as the Sunshine State, but you wouldn’t know it from the state’s ranking at No. 13 for solar energy production.

Proponents of the so-called Solar Choice ballot initiative say they can reverse this by challenging the control major utility companies hold over electricity sales in Florida. The initiative, if passed as an amendment to the state Constitution, would supersede a state law allowing only investor-owned utilities to sell electricity.

“It’s the first glimmer of hope for the widespread use of solar power and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime,” said Scott McIntyre, chief executive officer of Solar Energy Management, based in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy. “It’s going to kick off the solar industry in the state of Florida.”

An unlikely coalition of conservatives, liberals, environmentalists and business people are pushing the initiative, which needs 680,000 petition signatures to get on the November 2016 ballot.

McIntyre, a Republican, said the initiative will promote free markets, a conservative principle. Once anyone can sell electricity, he said, it will spur the sale of solar-powered systems, eventually lowering the cost of solar- and utility-produced electricity.

Here’s how it would work: A homeowner who wants to install solar, but can’t afford the up-front costs, can instead “buy” the electricity produced by the solar arrays from the company that installed them. Proponents say the electricity will be cheaper than power from the utility company. Once the solar panels are paid off, the resident owns the power source, ensuring low utility bills for a decade or more.

“You’re actually paying less at the end of the month and you’re getting solar service over the longer term,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “That solar system is providing you clean power, and your bill is going to be stable from then on.”

For environmental groups, the initiative is another way to incrementally reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced by combustion of coal, oil and natural gas. Electric power plants powered by these fossil fuels are the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director for the Sierra Club, said the environmental group hasn’t taken an official position on the ballot initiative and won’t until the club’s executives can review the ballot language. But Jackalone, who is based in St. Petersburg, said he supports Solar Choice in principle because the initiative will benefit consumers and the environment.

“This is going to make a lot of people and businesses energy-independent,” Jackalone said. “And it’s going to move us away from those dirty fossil fuel plants.”

Members of Floridians for Solar Choice say they’re ready for an expensive fight against well-funded utility companies with political clout. The group is buoyed by internal polls showing that more than 70 percent of Floridians support the concept of third-party solar energy sales.

“It’s a David and Goliath battle, but (the initiative) is enormously popular,” Smith said. “The utilities are going to have to spend a bunch of money to convince people that they don’t want it.”

But getting the required 60 percent of the vote necessary to amend the state Constitution is a high bar, particularly on an issue that doesn’t yet motivate voters.

That bar was too high in the November General Election for the medical marijuana initiative, which failed with more than 57 percent of the vote. Solar Choice proponents are hoping for an outcome closer to the 75 percent who approved the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, providing a dedicated source of revenue for land and water conservation.

Spokesmen for the three major utilities that serve the Tampa Bay area would not say where they stand on the solar measure.

“We continue to review the language and have not made a decision how we may support the proposed language,” Duke Energy spokesman Sterling Ivey said in an email. “But key components for us are that any state energy policy is fair and beneficial for all customers.”

TECO Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs, also via email, said the initiative is “likely the first of many energy proposals that will emerge over the next few months.”

“TECO Energy will evaluate the proposals and support the ones that are fair and beneficial to all customers,” Jacobs said.

A spokeswoman for Florida Power & Light Co. declined comment.

If the utilities oppose the initiative, proponents are likely to point to the industry’s missteps and public concern over their influence.

The concern dates to 2006, when the Legislature passed a law allowing utilities to collect money up-front for nuclear power projects. Progress Energy used the law to start collecting the costs of a repair job on the Crystal River nuclear plant and for the startup costs on a new plant in Levy County.

The repair job was botched, Duke Energy bought Progress Energy in July 2012, and the following February the Crystal River Plant was closed.

Later in 2013, Duke Energy announced it was abandoning the Levy County plant due to changes in the energy market.

Fallout from the two failed nuclear plants became an issue in the 2014 governor and cabinet races. The Public Service Commission made Duke Energy return $54 million collected for the Levy County plant.

But soon after, the commission cut energy-efficiency targets for the utilities by 90 percent and scrapped the state’s solar rebate program. Both actions were at the request of the power companies.

“It’s just one thing after another,” said Smith, with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The utility monopolies are not accountable, and they only have their shareholders in mind.”

Floridians for Solar Choice, on the Web at fl solarchoice.org, has to collect petition signatures in two phases.

First, it needs 68,000 signatures to have the initiative language reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court.

If the court approves, the group has to collect another 612,000 signatures by Feb. 1, 2016, to put the initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot that year.

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