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Fla. solar bill sponsor enlists out-of-state support for consumer provisions

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Fla. solar bill sponsor enlists out-of-state support for consumer provisions

The sponsor of a Florida House bill that skeptics say puts up unnecessary barriers to solar development in the Sunshine State enlisted an out-of-state supporter to urge the legislation's approval at an April 5 committee meeting. The bill, reported favorably by the Ways and Means Committee, has one more committee stop before reaching the House floor.

Introduced last month by Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues, HB 1351 would implement Amendment 4, which was passed by nearly 73% of Florida voters. The amendment would give commercial buildings a property tax exemption for installing solar and other renewable-energy equipment. But certain provisions in HB 1351, which Rodrigues characterizes as consumer protection measures, have drawn criticism for what solar advocates see as overly burdensome regulations that would stifle Florida solar's growth.

Rodrigues has said his legislation was inspired by a 2015 Arizona law, SB 1465, that implements strict disclosure requirements for solar companies wanting to install panels. This practice, he says, will expose unethical solar installers. The lone testifier who spoke April 5 in support of Rodrigues' bill was an Arizonan: Bob Stump, a former member of the state's Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities.

"We're told that our desire to protect our constituents against bad actors in the solar industry is a utility-sponsored plot to kill solar. This became known in Arizona as the Chicken Little argument," Stump said. "But the sky in Arizona hasn't fallen. The sun and the sky continues to do its job."

He cited statistics showing that Arizona ranks third in the country for solar electric capacity per resident, and that rooftop solar grows there "in spite of consumer protections being put in place, or perhaps because of them." Amendment 4, however, deals with commercial solar, not residential, and HB 1351 is its implementing legislation.

Stump also discussed a 2013 instance when a Florida solar company, BlueChip Energy, failed and left customers on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars. Rodrigues' bill, Stump argued, would prevent future occurrences like these.

"If the utilities were in a conspiracy to decimate Florida's solar industry and were truly as Machiavellian as some conspiracy theorists make them out to be," Stump asserted, "wouldn't they secretly wish for more instances of fraud and fewer consumer protections to give the solar industry a bad name?"

Solar supporters, however, want what they call a "clean" implementation of Amendment 4. In their view, HB 1351 steps on the toes of consumer protection provisions currently outlined in state and federal law, along with installers' already-existing internal standards. Arizona regulates unlicensed solar sellers through its attorney general's office, while Florida regulates licensed solar contractors through its Department of Business and Professional Regulation. And HB 1351 would give Florida's Public Service Commission jurisdiction over solar, thus exempting the industry from protections in the state's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The act "is the most effective and targeted tool that we have, even more so than anything in HB 1351," said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "That is of concern, and whether or not the Florida Public Service Commission or the utilities themselves are the right place to put up additional standards and barriers."