Nov
22
2016

Discussions About Future of Solar Far From Over

In an opinion piece published earlier this week in Utility Dive, David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, draws a number of conclusions about what the failure of Florida’s Amendment One means to the future of solar power. Tying the Amendment One vote to Mr. Trump’s election, Pomerantz reasons that the Amendment One vote shows that the public is fully dedicated to the robust future of residential solar power. Those are shaky conclusions, though, and Pomerantz would do well to abandon the solar industry’s talking points and face some basic realities.

Solar Panel

If passed, Florida’s Amendment One would have enshrined in the state’s constitution the right to solar rooftop ownership, but also provided key protections for consumers when it comes to ripoffs and malpractice. It also would have assured that non-solar customers are never asked to pay more for electricity to subsidize others who choose to install solar at their homes. Those are priorities PACE has backed for years, from net metering issues in Arizona to solar issues in Mississippi and Louisiana. Our position has been that the future of solar power must include safeguards for the equitable treatment of all customers – both solar and non-solar – and must model itself in a way that is economically sustainable.

PACE was proud to back Amendment One in Florida because we believed strongly that the measure would put into practice the principles we’ve argued for across the country. Unfortunately, the ballot measure did not gain enough votes, but what conclusions can we really draw from the vote on Amendment One? In the end, more people voted for the amendment than against it. Pomerantz would like to paint the measure’s failure as a referendum for doubling down on rooftop solar, but that seems a stretch. After all, a majority of Floridians actually supported the amendment, but the requirement for passage of a constitutional amendment is set high at sixty percent vote.

Second, Pomerantz’s piece wrongly alleges that Amendment One would have hurt the future of solar in Florida, which simply isn’t true. While he bemoans what he deems a paltry amount of solar power being generated in Florida, the truth is that Florida is top of the list in solar power production among states without a renewable energy mandate. With the market left to work on its own, Florida’s solar power industry has prospered. Just as important, solar power in Florida has grown in a way that has balanced the desires of solar rooftop owners with the needs of customers who haven’t chosen – or can’t afford to choose – solar for their homes.

Sure, Florida could follow the lead of Massachusetts and New Jersey, the two states Pomerantz admires for their solar policies, but what would that mean on a broader scale for Florida’s electricity ratepayers? After all, the author fails to point out that Massachusetts and New Jersey have some of the highest residential power prices in the nation. Not as high as California, of course, the state Pomerantz calls home.

It is not unreasonable for customers, or the utilities that serve them, to engage in a public debate about how residential solar power will integrate smoothly with the grid and into existing ways of regulating and pricing electricity. Those are important questions that deserve to be asked, especially if we are discussing the idea of substantially more customer-owned solar power. For example, the cost shifting to non-solar customers that Pomerantz chooses to put in quotes, as if such cost shifting isn’t real and harmful, deserves close scrutiny, especially since a landmark study from MIT released last year describes the phenomenon of cost shifting in detail.

Deserving scrutiny, too, is the author’s assertion about the vast benefits to the grid of more rooftop solar, a popular talking point that nonetheless remains murky and largely unsubstantiated.

Passing a constitutional amendment in Florida is difficult. Passing any amendment in the midst of an historically abrasive and emotion-infused presidential election is even more difficult. That’s why reading the vote against Amendment One, a vote that didn’t break the fifty percent mark, as a groundswell of support for an unregulated rooftop solar market or a referendum against the state’s utilities seems a bit silly.

Solar issues do deserve more public conversation and debate. They deserve to be discussed in a way that doesn’t just take into account the desire of the for-profit solar industry to grow and the hope for solar home owners to be compensated for the power they produce, but that also considers the wishes of non-solar customers to be treated fairly and the concerns of those who are responsible for balancing the grid and ensuring power is available when it’s needed. Customers, utilities, and advocacy groups all deserve a seat at the table, because they all have valid concerns and legitimate hopes about the future of solar.

Millions of Florida voters said no to Amendment One, but even more said yes. Instead of drawing wild conclusions about what that vote signified, the more productive approach is to listen more closely. The discussion is far from over.