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Fla. Supreme Court approves utility-backed solar measure for November ballot

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Fla. Supreme Court approves utility-backed solar measure for November ballot

TheFlorida Supreme Court on March 31 approved, by a vote of 4-3, a solarpower-related ballot measure backed by the state's utilities to go on theNovember ballot.

Theballot initiative, titled "Rights of Electricity Consumers RegardingSolar Energy Choice," is being advanced by a group called Consumers forSmart Solar. The court's decision does not represent an endorsement of theballot measure's cause but instead is a review of its language to ensure thatits title and summary language are not misleading and that the ballot measureonly covers a single subject.

Opponents and advocates of the measure argued .According to Florida's Division of Elections, Consumers for Smart Solar hasgathered 720,395 valid signatures in favor of the measure, well in excessof the 683,149 required to make the ballot.

Voters in the state will now have the opportunity to vote onwhether to amend the Florida Constitution with the ballot measure's language,which would enshrine the right for consumers to own or lease solar equipmentinstalled on their property to generate power for its own use. It would alsomaintain state and local government regulatory oversight over rooftop solar "to protect consumer rights and publichealth." The ballot measure also seeks to ensure customers withoutrooftop solar "are not required to subsidize" the costs of backuppower and grid access for those who do.

Opponents of theConsumers for Smart Solar initiative have criticized it as an effort byinvestor-owned electric utilities to enforce the status quo by assertingproperty rights Florida citizens already possess. Consumers for Smart Solarlaunched their effort in July2015, roughly six months after a different coalition, Floridiansfor Solar Choice, launched itsown ballot initiative that would allow for third-party sales ofelectricity. That key distinction would allow customers to have rooftop solarpanels installed by, and leased from, a solar provider, thus avoiding the oftenprohibitive upfront costs of installing a rooftop solar array.

Florida's fourmajor investor-owned utilities, NextEraEnergy Inc. subsidiary FloridaPower & Light Co., DukeEnergy Corp. subsidiary DukeEnergy Florida LLC, SouthernCo. subsidiary GulfPower Co., and TECOEnergy Inc. subsidiary TampaElectric Co., opposethe Floridians for Solar Choice measure and have provided to Consumers forSmart Solar.

In , Floridians forSolar Choice conceded that it was not on pace to gather enough signatures tomake the 2016 ballot and was setting its sights on 2018. The group blamed itsrival, Consumers for Smart Solar, for its failure to gather enough signatures.Floridians for Solar Choice has gathered 291,178valid signatures of the 683,149 it needs, according to Florida's Divisionof Elections.

In the majorityopinion, the Florida Supreme Court disagreed with opponents of the Consumersfor Smart Solar ballot initiative who argued it simply enforced the status quo."It is undeniable that a constitutional right to a specific type ofproperty — by virtue of its enumeration and in the absence of language withinthe Florida Constitution to the contrary — necessarily receives greaterprotection than a general constitutional right to property," the justiceswrote. "Accordingly, by enshrining a constitutional right 'to own or leasesolar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for theirown use' in the Florida Constitution, the proposed amendment provides strongerprotection for solar energy consumers than previously existed under the FloridaConstitution."

In her dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente warned the ballotinitiative's danger lay not in what it says, but what it omits. "What theballot summary does not say is that there is already a right to use solarequipment for individual use afforded by the Florida Constitution and existingFlorida statutes and regulations," she wrote. "It does not explainthat the amendment will elevate the existing rights of the government toregulate solar energy use and establish that regulatory power as aconstitutional right in Florida. This is a glaring omission."

In a news release, Floridians for Solar Choice Chairman ToryPerfetti said, "We aredisappointed that the court let through an amendment that was clearly designedto enshrine the status quo in this state. The Consumers for Smart Solaramendment is more of the same and continues the pattern of doing nothing tohelp Florida move into the 21st century regarding how we create, distribute,and use energy."