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Advocates extoll the virtues of Amendment 4 in roundtable discussion at USFSP campus

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Supporters of expanding the use of solar power in Florida held a roundtable discussion on the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg campus on Tuesday to discuss how the passage of Amendment 4 next week could crack open resistance to alternative energy sources in the Sunshine State.

Amendment 4 exempts solar devices and equipment from being subject to the personal tangible property tax. A business that currently has solar panels is currently being taxed on the panels or devices in addition to their building. The new amendment — if passed — would exempt businesses with solar panels from paying higher taxes.

“The cost of solar has come down so exponentially, 60 percent to 80 percent in the last decade, and the efficiency is better, and so we’re really in a different conversation and we have the opportunity to do something,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the organization that backed a rival amendment that failed to get on the November ballot.

The other solar measure that did get on the ballot this year is Amendment 1, which will appear on the November ballot. That initiative is not supported by the environmental community, and Amendment 4 advocates made sure not to muddy the waters by talking about that proposal today.

Unlike many proposed constitutional amendments Floridians vote on in November, Amendment 4 made it on the August ballot with a vote by the Legislature, not a citizen-initiated petition drive. The proposed constitutional amendment is being sponsored by St. Petersburg Republicans Jeff Brandes in the Senate; and Fort Myers Republican Ray Rodrigues and Boynton Beach Democrat Lori Berman in the House.

Tory Perfetti, with Floridians 4 Lower Energy Costs, praised the fact that Amendment 4 has support from people of all different types of ideological stripes. “Some people are coming at Amendment 4 as one more shot at helping forward climate change, and then you have people on my side who … look at climate change data more skeptically. I think the overriding part of this is that though an open energy policy, (it) can lead to benefits for each individual and group in the state as large and diverse as ours.”

“I think this is a great way to give tax breaks to businesses that want to install solar panels, added Darden Rice, vice chair of the St. Petersburg City Council and chair of the council’s Energy, Natural Resources & Sustainability Committee. “It’s one more feather in our cap to help attract and recruit businesses to this area.”

Rice called out two local companies who have installed solar power in their establishments and the savings they will soon enjoy, starting with Great Bay Distributors in St. Petersburg, which last year erected a new warehouse that has the largest commercial rooftop solar array in all of Florida with 4,590 panels. “It’s reduced their electricity costs by 40 percent. It cost them a little more than $2 million to install it, but their payback is gonna be in a little more than six years.”

Mesh Architecture in Lealman is another local business going solar. The firm installed a 100-kilowatt installation with an integrated roof earlier this year. “It really makes sense not to tax the sunshine,” Rice said. “Let’s not tax the solar devices. Let’s not punish businesses for the increased value that they’re going to attain by putting solar panels … let’s use that as a incentive to help businesses do the right thing and save money.”

The solar industry is growing jobs faster than any other sector of the economy, says Wayne Wallace, the proprietor of Solar Source, a solar company that’s been doing business out of Largo since 1984. He said the passage of Amendment 4 would reduce some of the barriers that currently inhibit the growth and development of the solar industry in Florida.

“If Mr. Joe Business owner wants to lower his costs, save money, help homegrown local jobs, and invest in a solar system for his business, he shouldn’t have to pay taxes for it,” Wallace said, summing up why the decision to support the measure was obvious. “Who doesn’t want to save money? And who doesn’t want to help generate jobs in the local economy, and as a fringe, who doesn’t want cleaner air?”

Although Wallace called a cleaner environment as “just a fringe,” it’s a dominant thought amongst the environmental crowd that has been hungering for the Sunshine State to do more with solar than it has to date. Criticism over the years has been generated at the reluctance of public utilities to embrace alternative energy, but with prices continuing to drop precipitously in the past few years, even the utilities are beginning to come around.

“As the cost of solar energy continues to decrease and the efficiency of panels grows, we’re increasing our investments in solar,” said Alex Glenn, president of Duke Energy-Florida last month after Duke opened the Osceola Solar Facility in Osceola County.

“Climate change is real and we have to do something about it,” insisted James Scott, Student Senate president at USFSP. But he said he’s learned that key influential officials on the campus are more interested in the financing and the economics behind clean energy, rather that on the clean energy front. He said that Amendment 4 was a no-brainer, but it would be harder to get the rest of the population to be thinking of a greener, more alternative energy focused state moving into the future.

Sixty percent of votes are need to pass the amendment into law in Florida.

The Florida Legislature does not start its next session until 2017. The amendment would go into effect on Jan. 1,  2018, and would extend for 20 years until Dec. 31, 2037.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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