Fine print: Florida's 'pro-solar' ballot measure is anything but

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A Florida ballot initiative backed by energy utilities and an array of right-leaning organizations could damage efforts to expand solar power in the state. Now an eleventh-hour attempt by opponents to get it removed from the ballot has failed.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association and Floridians for Solar Choice to have the "Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice" initiative, better known as Amendment 1, withdrawn for deceptive language. The groups have argued for months that despite its sunny-sounding title, the measure would elevate to the state's constitution an effective near ban on net metering, a practice that helps ratepayers recoup the costs of the expensive equipment more quickly, or to contract with third-party providers to install and maintain solar arrays in return for the income from the extra current.

Dozens of Florida newspapers, conservation groups, local officials, and political groups, as well as solar industry groups, have urged voters to reject the measure.

Amendment 1 "opens the door for the monopoly utilities to go to the legislature or the public service commission and ask for fees to be imposed upon solar users, or to take some sort of negative stance or in another way hinder net metering," said Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "If utilities can drive up the cost of solar by pushing up the fees or cutting off net metering, that makes solar less affordable and cuts off expansion." Kimbis termed the ballot measure's language deceptive, noting that the rights of the state to protect consumers, public health, and the safety and welfare of state residents, along with the right of consumers "to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use," are already covered by various Florida statutes.

The Florida measure is just one of several efforts around the country to increase the costs of rooftop solar, which utilities fear will weaken their control of power distribution, Kimbis said. These include Nevada's move in 2015 to reduce fees and rates paid to customers with solar arrays connected to the grid. In addition to changing the terms of agreements many ratepayers had counted on to help them pay for solar systems, the move prompted major solar equipment retailers to lay off hundreds of employees and exit the state.

RELATED: Sunny States Are Sabotaging Solar Energy

The group leading the campaign for Amendment 1, Consumers for Smart Solar, has denied that it has tried to mislead voters. "This is just political grandstanding," Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar, said in an email. "Elevating this right to a constitutional right ensures that special interest groups (our opponents) who want solar in Florida done on their terms—without consumer protections and with unfair subsidies—won't be able to avoid current laws that protect consumers."

But in mid-October, the Miami Herald released a recording of a conference speech in which the policy director of a right-leaning think tank acknowledged that Amendment 1's wording was meant to confuse voters. "Solar polls very well," Sal Nuzzo of the James Madison Institute told the audience. "To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they're kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums—if that's the direction you want to take—use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop."

The Center for Media and Democracy, which supplied the recording to the Herald, has documented that the $24 million campaign to pass Amendment 1 was funded by power utilities, as well as groups with ties to right-wing political networks such as the Koch brothers' operation. "Much of this happens in secret" in other states, said Nick Surgey, the group's research director. "We're benefiting here in part because campaign finance laws in Florida require disclosures of funding for this campaign."

"The utilities collectively have been making a concerted effort recently to appear more conscious of the effects of climate change," he added. "The encouraging thing is that the reason they're having to mislead people is that solar polls so well."

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The SunSPEC car from Singapore competes during the qualification lap for the 2015 World Solar Challenge at Hidden Valley race track in Darwin, Australia, on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Beginning on Sunday, 45 Solar cars from 25 different countries will begin a 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
KATHERINE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: The team from Nuna8 of Nuon Solar Team Netherlands prepare their car to continue racing in the Challenger Class at the first control point outside of Katherine during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Katherine, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DUNMARRA, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: (EDITORS NOTE: A polarizing filter was used for this image.) Team members from the Tokai Challenger of Tokai University Japan prpeare their car to catch the last of the sun on the side of the highway after racing during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Dunmarra, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DUNMARRA, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: Punch One of Punch Powertrain Solar Team Belgium races between Katherine and Dunmarra in the Challenger Class during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Dunmarra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
KATHERINE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: (EDITORS NOTE: A polarizing filter was used for this image.) Arctan of Stanford Solar Car Project USA racing in the Challenger Class pulls into the first control point outside of Katherine during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Katherine, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: Team members check the car Nuna8 of Nuon Solar Team Netherlands racing in the Challenger Class stops at the first control point outside of Katherine during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Katherine, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: Aurum of University of Michigan Solar Car Team USA crosses the Katherine river as it races in the Challenger Class during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 15: Bridgestone ambassador, Shane Jacobson poses in front of the #75 UNSW Solar Racing Team - Sunswift during the 2015 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge at Darwin International Airport on October 15, 2015 in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for The World Solar Challenge)
COOBER PEDY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 20: Members from Red One of Solar Team Twente Netherlands catch the last of the sun to charge at the end of racing in the Challenger Class during day three of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 20, 2015 outside of Coober Pedy, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. on October 19, 2015 in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DUNMARRA, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: (EDITORS NOTE: A polarizing filter was used for this image.) A team member sprays the solar panels on Aurum of University of Michigan Solar Car Team USA in the Dunmarra control stop after racing in the Challenger Class during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Dunmarra, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
The Tokai University car from Japan competes during the fourth day of the 2015 World Solar Challenge in Coober Pedy, Australia, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. 45 Solar cars from 25 different countries participate in a 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
The Punch Powertrain Solar Team car from Belgium competes during the fourth day of the 2015 World Solar Challenge in Coober Pedy, Australia, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. 45 Solar cars from 25 different countries participate in a 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: Flies are seen at pre-dawn around the covered head of a member of the Arctan of Stanford Solar Car Project team USA before racing in the Challenger Class between Dunmarra and Elliott during day two of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 19, 2015 in Dunmarra, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. on October 19, 2015 in Dunmarra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
The Punch Powertrain Solar Team car from Belgium competes during the fourth day of the 2015 World Solar Challenge in Coober Pedy, Australia, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. 45 Solar cars from 25 different countries participate in a 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
The Tokai University car from Japan competes during the qualification lap for the 2015 World Solar Challenge at Hidden Valley race track in Darwin, Australia, on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Beginning on Sunday, 45 Solar cars from 25 different countries will begin a 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
The Punch Powertrain Solar Team car from Belgium competes during the second day of the 2015 World Solar Challenge near Elliott, Australia, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. 45 Solar cars from 25 different countries participate in a 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Members of different solar racing teams pose with their cars after the qualification lap for the 2015 World Solar Challenge at Hidden Valley race track in Darwin, Australia, on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Beginning on Sunday, 45 Solar cars from 25 different countries will begin a 3,000 km race from Darwin to Adelaide. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 20: (EDITORS NOTE: A [graduated] color filter was used for this image.) Nuna8 of Nuon Solar Team Netherlands crosses the border from Northern Territory into South Australia as it races in the Challenger Class during day the of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 20, 2015 outside of Kulgerra, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. on October 19, 2015 in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 20: (EDITORS NOTE: A [graduated] color filter was used for this image.) Punch One of Punch Powertrain Solar Team Belgium crosses the Charles River as it races in the Challenger Class as is nears Alice Springs during day the of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 20, 2015 outside of Alice Springs, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
COOBER PEDY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 20: Members from Tokai Challenger of Tokai University Japan catch the last of the sun to charge at the end of racing in the Challenger Class during day three of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 20, 2015 outside of Coober Pedy, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. on October 19, 2015 in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
TENNANT CREEK, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 19: Punch One of Punch Powertrain Solar Team Belgium is seen as it races in the Challenger Class into Elliott during day two of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 19, 2015 in Elliott, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. on October 19, 2015 in Dunmarra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
KATHERINE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: A team member from Nuna8 of Nuon Solar Team Netherlands takes a reading as they prepare their car to continue racing in the Challenger Class at the first control point outside of Katherine during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Katherine, Australia. Teams from across the globe are competing in the 2015 World Solar Challenge - a 3000 km solar-powered vehicle race between Darwin and Adelaide. The race begins on October 18th with the first car expected to cross the finish line on October 22nd. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: Punch One of Punch Powertrain Solar Team Belgium races in the Challenger Class is seen during the first control point stop outside of Katherine during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Katherine, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: Team members lift and turn the car Nuna8 of Nuon Solar Team Netherlands racing in the Challenger Class during the first control point stop outside of Katherine during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Katherine, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
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