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Critics: Bill to implement solar tax breaks has become a vehicle for solar barriers

Solar panelsA bill moving through the Florida House to implement the August ballot initiative by giving tax breaks to businesses that install solar energy panels is under fire for doing what the utility industry could not do this election cycle - impose impediments to rooftop solar installation.

The bill, HB 1351 by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, was passed unanimously by the House Energy and Utilities Subcommittee Tuesday but only after several legislators expressed reservations and members of the solar industry warned that a long list of “consumer protections” in the bill will actually serve to keep legitimate companies from doing business in Florida.

In addition to authorizing language that prohibits tax assessors from increasing the taxable value of a home or business because of a solar installation, Rodrigues added language he said he modeled off an Arizona law that he says will provide consumer safeguards against “bad actors” in the solar industry.

He acknowledged that there are no problems with solar industry installations today in Florida but, because removing the tax barriers will result in “an uptick” in new solar expansion, “the time to do it is now rather than waiting until consumers are taken advantage of.”

Under the bill, any company that installs rooftop solar would be required to file more than 20 financial disclosures relating to their business practices, calculate a customers’ energy savings based on future, not past, energy rates, follow new codes and standards and face new imposes penalties for violations.

In addition, the Florida Public Service Commission would have new power to impose new rules related to solar safety and performance, in addition to those already in place under state and federal law.

But members of the solar industry told the committee that safety requirements are already in place, and the Solar Energy Industry Association already requires its members to adhere to best practices and disclosures intended to weed out bad actors and benefit consumers.

“This goes way too far,’’ said Jeff Sharkey, lobbyist for Tesla, Solar City and the Energy Freedom Coalition of America. “At the end of the day, these are going to be confusing to consumers, potentially provide obstacles, and make it a little more difficult to purchase and install these energy saving devices on their homes.”

Several solar industry company officials said the implementing bill is being used to inject barriers that are contrary to the pro-solar attitude voters had when they passed Amendment 4 with 73 percent support on the primary ballot last year. They say the language has appeared not only in Arizona but other states, where the utility industry is trying to stave-off competition from rooftop solar expansion.

Florida’s utilities have largely remained silent on the Amendment 4 but privately told legislators they opposed it and wanted to see its implementation delayed. Meanwhile, the state’s largest electricity monopolies have announced plans to expand their utility-scale solar capacity throughout the state and worked unsuccessfully to pass Amendment 1 on the November ballot, which would have allowed regulators to impose fees and barriers to rooftop solar installation.

The only person who spoke up in favor of Rodrigues’ bill was Mandy Heinz, Desoto County administrator, whose county is home to Florida Power & Light’s first utility-scale solar plant. The company plans to expand its utility-scale solar by constructing the Wildflower Solar Energy Center with another 74.5 megawatts of solar capacity.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the Senate sponsor of the bill to authorize implementation of Amendment 4,said he does not support the added “consumer” language in Rodrigues’ proposal.

“My position is that voters clearly gave us direction and we want to operate simply within the scope of the direction that 73 percent of the voters provided,’’ Brandes told the Herald/Times. “I have had zero constituents come to me asking me to do anything more than what Amendment 4 authorized.” In addition, no constituents have asked him for the language from Arizona and no one in the solar industry has sought it out.

Instead, he said, Florida Power & Light lobbyists have told him “when I asked them directly, they spoke to Rep. Rodrigues about adding the language” to the Amendment 4 implementing bill. Brandes said he supports “standard disclosure, but if it's more than that, that's a problem.”

Barry Jacobson, president of Solar Impact in Gainesville, told the committee that the layers of new disclosure rules would “truly impact” his "mom and pop operation" and make it difficult to remain in business.

Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said that the testimonypersuaded him to have “real concerns” with the proposal and would like to see the proposed requirements pared down.

He said he supported the bill but “having heard from small business owners, when you put them all together, it does seem overwhelming when you have all of these requirements at one time.”

Brandes bill, SB 90, has passed unanimously through two Senate committees and has two more stops to the floor.