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Solar Energy Debate Heats Up Again

David Rifkind's roof is lined with solar panels that produce more than half the energy his family uses.
Wilson Sayre
David Rifkind's roof is lined with solar panels that produce more than half the energy his family uses.

Solar energy is a hot issue again in Florida.

Voters  overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in August giving  tax relief to businesses that own or lease solar panels. Another solar amendment will be on Florida’s ballot in November.

The August amendment had broad support, but November’s Amendment 1 has pitted traditional environmental groups against the state’s electric utilities in a controversial fight over the future of solar in Florida.

At the core of this controversy is what role individual solar panel owners will play in the overall generation of renewable energy.

David Rifkind’s South Miami Home is topped by 40 glistening solar panels. His roof is angled perfectly to capture the most direct sun, but it helps with other things too.

“In our case it's mostly peacock poop that we have to wash off,” Rifkind laughs.

Like most people who have solar panels, Rifkind still needs to get some of his power from utilities, which distribute electricity through a network of power plants and power lines called the grid.

There is a special kind of electrical meter attached to Rifkind’s garage that keeps track of what his solar panels produce and what he gets from Florida Power & Light.

During the day, the solar panels often produce so much electricity, his family can’t use it all, so it gets pushed onto the grid, and he gets credited for that on his meter. His neighbor or someone a few houses down might use some of the electricity.

When the clouds roll in or the sun goes down, Rifkind’s solar panels don’t produce electricity. Instead, to keep the AC and fridge on, his house pulls electricity from the grid. He is debited for this on his meter.

You can watch the meter go back and forth, pulling and pushing electricity off and onto the grid.

“It just shifted,” Rifkind says, pointing to his meter, “so now we’re receiving a little bit more from them …because it just got shady all of a sudden.”

This system is called “net metering.”

While Rifkind’s family invested in this solar technology to be more environmentally responsible, this back and forth has financial implications.

“The amount of electricity we do not have to purchase from the utility every year is equal to about eight percent of the installed price of the solar panels,” Rifkind says.

That means his investment in the panels will pay for itself in about 12 years, assuming the value of the solar power he contributes to the grid and the cost to be connected to the grid stay the same.

Opponents of Amendment 1 are afraid those things could change if the measure passes.

Amendment 1 states that consumers who don’t have solar panels won’t be forced to subsidize the costs of the grid for those who do.

That’s just a logical protection, according to Screven Watson with , the group behind the amendment. He says people who don’t use solar shouldn’t have to pay more for the upkeep of the grid.

“The cost to do the maintenance, to do the repairs in storms is all sort of … baked into our electric bill,” Watson says. “But if all of a sudden everybody [who] had solar didn't have to pay, [the] people who don't choose solar, [their] rates are going to go up.”

He believes that as more people turn their roofs into miniature solar farms, more of the cost for grid maintenance will shift to non-solar consumers. He says that could create a situation in which solar users are not paying their fair share, even though they still use power from the grid when the sun isn’t shining.

Watson says he wants more solar in the state, but not on the backs of people who can’t afford it.

On the other side, people like Stephen Smith with the says this amendment is just an example of the power companies pushing back on consumers who are reducing their dependency on utilities.

“If you go in your home, and you put in a more efficient refrigerator or a new LED light bulb, you're going to use less power,” Smith says. “Now, does the utility have a right to say that you've got to continue to pay them even though you're not using as much? I don't think so.”

The amendment does not specify exactly how people who use solar would have to help pay for the upkeep of the grid.

Smith is worried there could be a fee for people like Rifkind to connect to the grid or that the rate he gets paid to contribute energy to the grid might get cut. He fears that could make solar less attractive to individuals and leave it in the hands of utility-built solar farms.

Utilities are the main financial backers of the amendment.

Amendment 1 is the last petition standing in a fight for signatures among several proposed solar-related ballot measures.

In 2015, , a group Smith helped start, was circulating a proposal that would provide protections and a pathway for third-party solar sales in Florida. It would have allowed individuals to pay to get their electricity from a small- or medium-scale solar farm operated by a non-utility company.

Consumers for Smart Solar then started circulating its own, competing proposal, citing concerns about a lack of consumer protections in the first petition.

There was  confusion about which petition did what.

“There's a lot of documentation that they were misleading people,” Smith says, “and they ultimately drove the cost up while we were gathering signatures to basically prevent us from ever qualifying or getting enough signatures on the ballot.”

The  Florida Supreme Court approved the ballot language in March. For Amendment 1 to pass, 60 percent of the voters will need to cast their ballots in support of it in November.

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Wilson Sayre was born and bred in Raleigh, N.C., home of the only real barbecue in the country (we're talking East here). She graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she studied Philosophy.