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Solar power amendment opponent says its passage would cost ratepayers $1.1 billion

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The ballot initiative that would increase access to solar power in Florida next year has faced intense opposition from the public utilities and big business all year long.

One of those opponents is The James Madison Institute (JMI), a conservative think-tank based in Tallahassee. The group released a report on Wednesday claiming that if the amendment — led by the group Floridians for Solar Choice — were to pass in 2016, it would shift $1.1 billion in costs to ratepayers.

“This proposed amendment violates free markets, violates limited government, and discourages affordable energy,” said James Taylor with the Heartland Institute who worked with JMI to produce the policy paper, called “Solar Carve-Outs in the Sunshine State.” Speaking on a conference call, Taylor said the media has described the proposed amendment as a free market initiative, “when nothing could be further from the truth.”

When asked how the authors came up with the $1.1 billion figure, Sal Nuzzo, JMI’s vice president of policy, said that public utilities throughout the state are required to maintain 100 percent of “grid capacity, regardless of whether or not the locations are generating their own power through wind or solar or any other renewable source.”

He estimated that if at least 8 percent of citizens switched to solar power three years after the constitutional amendment went into effect, there would be a cost shift, with all of those citizens who are either installing solar panels or purchasing solar energy from off-grid generation would be “free riding” on the rest of the traditional utility ratepayers, because the traditional utilities have to maintain 100 percent grid capacity.

That finding, he said, “was pretty shocking but not surprising.”

JMI president and CEO Bob McClure said in a statement that the proposal doesn’t belong in the state’s Constitution.

“The Florida Constitution would no longer be a sacred document that protects our freedoms and sets the ground rules for our representative government. It would instead become a trough for pork-barrel favoritism and consumer restrictions that would become the coveted prize of crony capitalism,” said McClure. “To the extent that any energy industry, solar, wind, coal, natural gas, seeks to gain a greater share of Florida’s electricity market, their proper course of action should be to first produce a more economical product.”

The paper is the latest effort to try to stymie the solar power amendment — actually one of two such proposals that could be competing against each other next year.

Some the state’s largest utilities —  Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co., and Gulf Power — filed a brief in the Supreme Court trying to stop Floridians for Solar Choice from getting on the ballot earlier this year. Many of those same groups are funding the opposing solar power amendment, called Consumers for Smart Solar.

A representative for Floridians for Solar Choice said the group would not be making any comment regarding the James Madison Institute paper at this time.

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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