SOURCE ALERT: Miami Law Energy Policy Expert Weighs Amendment 1

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On November 8, Florida voters will decide on a proposed solar energy amendment. The initiative is seeking to add to what the state Constitution currently allows “establishing 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.”

Professor Felix Mormann is a nationally recognized expert in energy law, environmental law, and corporate law. His scholarship explores the legal, policy, and financial challenges along the path to an environmentally and economically sustainable energy future. He is Faculty Fellow at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. Mormann recently released “A Tale of Three Markets: Comparing the Solar and Wind Deployment Experiences of California, Texas, and Germany” in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal with a team of energy experts at Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center. 

 What is the vote on the amendment about?

Amendment 1 can be divided into two parts.  The first part seeks to establish a constitutional right to own or lease solar generation assets.  The second part purports to, in the interest of consumer protection, reserve the right of state and local governments to prohibit requiring ratepayers without solar installations from subsidizing the solar assets of other ratepayers by paying for backup power and grid access.

 Why is it controversial?

At a glance, amendment 1 appears to support the continued build-out of climate-friendly, renewable solar generation assets.  Closer scrutiny, however, suggests that the amendment’s primary purpose is to make solar development more, rather than less, difficult.  The establishment of a constitutional right to solar would do little to change the status quo, given that such a right already exists under Florida statute.  As such, it appears more like a smoke-and-mirrors maneuver or, as Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente has put it, “the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing,” intended to distract from the amendment’s more important, yet less salient, second part. 

The intended retention of a government right to prohibit cross-subsidization of solar development among ratepayers is a dubious proposition.  The “subsidy” language implicitly assumes that a ratepayer whose electricity payments help finance her neighbor’s solar assets does not get her money’s worth because the value of locally generated solar electricity is not commensurate with its cost.  This assumption as, at best, questionable and likely dishonest given that the electric utilities who have bankrolled amendment 1 with millions of dollars should know better.  To be sure, if rooftop solar assets that reduce the electricity bills of affluent ratepayers drive up electricity rates for lower-income ratepayers, they raise equity concerns, and justly so. But studies have repeatedly demonstrated that, assuming favorable resource conditions such as Florida’s abundant sunshine, locally generated solar power generates significant environmental and, critically, economic benefits for all electricity customers. 

Empirical support for these studies comes from New York, a state better known for the height of its buildings than long hours of sunshine.  Yet, a local electric utility recently embraced local solar and other renewable power generation as a cost-effective alternative to otherwise necessary investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure upgrades that would impose a greater financial burden on the utility’s ratepayers.  One wonders whether the underlying math would not yield even stronger pro-solar results in the Sunshine State, especially when the state’s largest utility has already charged its ratepayers hundreds of millions for the planning and licensing costs of a future expansion of the Turkey Point nuclear plant.

How does this tie into larger national conversations about energy, climate change, and renewable resources?

Amendment 1, if adopted, would mark yet another stumble along Florida’s painfully slow journey toward a sustainable energy future.  Already, Florida lags behind most states in the union in terms of installed solar capacity, largely as the result of a policy landscape that does little to promote solar and other renewable sources of energy. 

Proponents of the amendment may point to Nevada, where the public utilities commission recently approved steep increases in grid charges for ratepayers with solar assets, as a role model.  The legitimacy of these charges is currently being litigated in a case whose outcome will likely determine the treatment of distributed solar in other states. 

Florida, however, is not Nevada.  To fight the deployment of climate-friendly, renewable solar power seems downright self-destructive for a state that is uniquely threatened by sea level rise and other manifestations of anthropogenic climate change, yet generates most of its energy from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. 

CONTACT: Catharine Skipp at 305-883-5801 or cskipp@law.miami.edu