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Columbia County Observer

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Florida Should Be a Solar Power Haven

Whether or not one agrees about the presence of climate change, or the cause of it, there is some agreement in the area of energy diversification. For example, liberals and conservatives routinely join forces to promote the benefits of solar energy.

Those living outside Florida are surprised to discover we do not come anywhere near our potential in harnessing the premier resource of the Sunshine State. Florida should be a solar haven for consumers and entrepreneurs, yet obstacles remain.

Here is where conservatives and progressives differ. The states further along with solar implementation invest more toward development either with taxpayer dollars or higher bills from customers. Conservatives often balk at higher taxes or rates.

With a few exceptions, only the large power companies have the capital to invest in many of these solar projects. Floridians would be well served by more competition in the solar field.

Florida is one of only four states prohibiting citizens from purchasing electricity from anyone other than a utility. Advocates of solar power point to the ability of the large power providers to block legislation designed to open up the market to providers both within Florida and outside the state.

A public advocacy group, Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC), emerged to accomplish at the ballot box that which could not be enacted legislatively. FSC is sponsoring a ballot initiative that would “remove the upfront cost for solar power systems and expand solar power options to residential and commercial tenants.”

Who could be against that? To no one’s surprise, the major Florida power companies have aligned against the ballot proposal. Joining the opposition is Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Florida League of Cities, Americans for Prosperity and others.

In a brief filed with the Florida Supreme Court, Bondi argued the ballot summary was written to “hide the Amendment’s core purpose, which is to remove a class of utilities from the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission, ending the public protection it provides.”

This week, a competing organization emerged. Consumers for Smart Solar (CSS) will also seek to get on the 2016 ballot and correct what they say are flaws in the FSC proposal.

According to CSS Co-Chairman Jim Kallinger, the “amendment language will lead to a variety of unintended consequences,” including higher fees and an unequal sharing of costs. Kallinger said his group asked for changes to the earlier ballot proposal, but did not receive a response.

The principal problem, according to former Public Service Commission Chairman Matthew Carter, is the lack of protection for consumers. (Full disclosure: Carter serves as counsel to this writer’s firm on occasion.)

Coinciding with Bondi’s argument, the ballot language allows “any company to come in from out of state, sell to consumers and operate like a power company with no oversight,” said Carter, a co-chairman with Kallinger of CSS. “Consumers would be subject to fraud.”

Kallinger called the amendment a “power grab” by out-of-state companies. Floridians for Solar Choice Chairman Tory Perfetti says the amendment language seeks “to open up and give citizens further control of their own bills and have the ability to lower them.”

Who is right? Probably both.

Conservatives and progressives can agree with the notion of a more diversified energy portfolio that would include solar. They can also agree that those selling goods and services to Floridians must be accountable to the people of this state.

Perfetti and Floridians for Solar Choice say it is too late to change their language and start over. They have already obtained nearly 100,000 of the 683,000 valid signatures needed to get the amendment on the ballot.

Kallinger, Carter and Consumers for Smart Solar have a lot of work to do. It will take millions of dollars – for both groups – to get their competing messages out there.

The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments on the ballot language amendment on September 1. Let us hope the final result of all of this will be an opportunity for Florida companies – large and small – to provide an affordable service that benefits the citizens and is environmentally sound.

At the same time, if those companies can create more jobs in Florida and make a profit while they’re at it, then almost everyone is happier. It is time for Florida to be true to our nickname.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Image added by the Observer

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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