In a matter of weeks Floridians will be asked to decide on a seemingly humdrum amendment giving citizens a constitutional right to solar. But opponents are up in arms—claiming power companies are using the initiative as a way to stifle the spread of solar power.
Al Simpler is building a residential solar array on the outskirts of Tallahassee. It’s a large angled frame set up in a pasture next to the house.
“Well this is a ground mount that we’re building,” Simpler explains. “It has more airflow behind than say a roof mount, so it’s precisely oriented correctly, good airflow behind it so it actually out produces any other type of installation.”
The homeowner, Eugene Watkins, says the 6.2 kilowatt system will cover about two thirds of his energy usage in the summer and potentially all of it in the winter. He expects it will pay for itself in eight to 10 years. And Watkins is unequivocal about this November’s solar ballot initiative.
“I’d like to make sure everybody knows to vote no in November,” he says. “Amendment One will not promote solar power, it will make it harder for people to afford solar power.”
But supporters tell a different story. Led by the group Consumers for Smart Solar, they say the initiative simply gives Floridians a constitutional right to solar while guaranteeing state and local governments can take action to protect consumers. The group boasts politicians from both sides of the aisle, a former public service commissioner, and nearly $22 million from the state’s largest utility companies.
Screven Watson—former head of the Florida Democratic party and an amendment one backer—says passing the measure should be a no-brainer. He goes through the amendment clause by clause.
“Is there anything in the world controversial about the idea of providing a constitutional guarantee to generate your own solar electricity?” he asks. “Is there anything wrong with the idea of allowing government to retain its authority to protect the health safety and welfare of the public?”
But it’s the next part that’s riled so many opponents.
“…and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the cost of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.” subsection (b) Amendment 1
Amendment One seems innocuous because it guarantees rights that aren’t threatened. Floridians can already use solar. State and local authorities can already protect consumers. But opponents say that final twist—keeping non-solar consumers from subsidizing those who have solar—is deceptive, and could lead to fees or other charges for solar users.
Retired Florida State University instructor LuMarie Polivka-West didn’t know about that last clause when she saw the amendment on social media.
“What happened is it popped up on Facebook, ‘Yes for solar power,’ and so I liked it,” she explains.
Shortly after, her friends started asking why she was supporting the measure. That’s when Polivka-West realized she’d backed the wrong horse.
The initiative’s supporters argue without Amendment one, solar users could get a free ride—circumventing fees that go toward maintaining the grid. But opponents say the subsidization language is vague enough to be invoked anytime a consumer saves money by using solar.
Florida Wildlife Federation vice president and general counsel Preston Robertson says, “It seems to give standing to 20 million people—some of whom might have an interest in denying solar power to their neighbors—the opportunity to stymie the effort to have solar power in this state.”
It’s those concerns that have brought together a diverse array of groups from the wildlife federation to the League of Women Voters in opposition to the proposal.
Meanwhile, Polivka-West has un-liked Amendment One on Facebook.
But she hasn’t stopped there.
“Now it has energized me to make sure that I get as many people to understand Amendment One is not to be approved,” she says. “It is not in their best interest and I will do whatever I can over the next month to get that message out.”