The Politics of Solar Energy in Florida

 Rooftop solar in San Marco Island, Florida.  Image: Tai Viinikka

Rooftop solar in San Marco Island, Florida.  Image: Tai Viinikka

The Sunshine State, perhaps unsurprisingly, ranks third in the nation in rooftop solar potential.  It ranks first among states east of the Mississippi.  And yet Florida ranks a middling 14th in the nation in solar capacity installed.  What gives?  For one thing, Florida doesn't have a renewable energy standard (RES).  RESs require utility companies to source a certain percentage of their energy portfolio from renewable sources.  More than half of states have an RES of some kind.  

Also problematic are legislative barriers to rooftop solar installation.  If you're a Florida homeowner, you are free to purchase and install solar panels on your property.  But Florida doesn't allow third parties to provide those panels for you.  Landlords, for example, can't install panels for their tenants, and third party solar providers can't absorb the up-front cost of installation in exchange for monthly payments (often less than utility bills) from a homeowner.  The only entity that can sell power in Florida is a regulated utility company.  As this map shows, that makes Florida unique, one of only four states (Georgia recently authorized third-party solar) that prohibit third party solar:

 Image: DSIRE

Image: DSIRE

The anti-solar climate in Florida is fostering opposition from the usual suspects, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.  It's also creating a partnership between environmentalists and the Tea Party:

Debbie Dooley agrees that change is inevitable and may be coming sooner than many have expected. She is the president of the Green Tea Coalition and Conservatives for Energy Freedom, part of a growing movement among political conservatives who are advocating for solar across the country.
Bills have been awaiting passage "for years," she said, "and they have all stalled in committee. Now we are taking the message straight to the people, giving Floridians the right to decide for themselves."

Other conservatives are likewise frustrated by the rigidity of the state's solar rules:

"It is very frustrating to see how special interests affect politics," he said. "I'm a Republican solar contractor and I'm frustrated with my party in this state for taking donations that do not allow for competition and free market."

The groups are pushing for a constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot in 2016, which would remove barriers to third party solar installation.  In response, utility companies have started their own solar campaign:

Opponents have started a committee and constitutional amendment of their own: Consumers for Smart Solar, which aims to protect the existing rules around solar power. The Florida Chamber of Commerce — whose board of directors includes executives from five power companies — is a supporter.

Utilities are right to point out that regulation is needed in the energy sector to ensure that energy provision and consumption is safe and reliable.  But there's likely a less extreme option available to the legislature than a blanket prohibition on third party solar.  We'll find out in November 2016 if Florida voters agree.