The Sunshine State Prepares to Embrace Solar

Last week the Florida Senate passed a bill to implement wide-ranging changes that many expect will allow solar to, finally, take off in the state.

Florida shifting to clean energy is a big deal. It’s the third most populous state and has some of the best solar resources in the country: Independent estimates put it at No. 3 nationally, but it lags in installations. Due primarily to entrenched energy interests, Florida is far behind other solar-rich states, such as California, in going green. That may finally change.

“The Florida legislature took a historic step forward today to expand solar across the state while recognizing Floridians’ desire for more choice over their energy options,” Tom Kimbis, executive vice president for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a press statement last week in response to the passage of Senate Bill 90.

So, what took so long for Florida to go solar? Not surprisingly, powerful energy stakeholders such as the Koch brothers had something to do with it as major funders of anti-solar initiatives. A breathtaking story published in Rolling Stone last year showed, bluntly, just how far special interests were willing to go to keep Floridians stuck overpaying for dirty energy.

“The solar industry in Florida has been boxed out by investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that reap massive profits from natural gas and coal. These IOUs wield outsize political power in the state capital of Tallahassee, and flex it to protect their absolute monopoly on electricity sales,” wrote Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone.

“We live in the Stone Age in regard to renewable power,” state Rep. Dwight Dudley, the ranking Democrat on the energy subcommittee in the Florida House, told the paper. “The power companies hold sway here, and the consumers are at their mercy.”

With the state legislature under the firm control of utilities – which are the biggest donors – solar advocates went straight to voters last year. It wasn’t going to be easy because the utilities had a lot on their side – money, political power and considerable sway.

The pro-solar Amendment 4 won decisively this past August with over 70 percent of voters. This caused panic, and the investor-owned utilities came up with a counter plan, pushing another, deceptive ballot initiative that would negate Amendment 4 and keep Florida in the solar dark age.

But what happened next was stunning. Three months later, the deceptive, pro-utility, heavily funded Amendment 1 failed, finishing well below the necessary 60 percent threshold. Florida was, despite the wishes of big utilities, going solar.

SB 90 is the enabling legislation for Amendment 4. It passed the state legislature on Thursday and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Rick Scott. Once approved, it will make rooftop solar installations far easier in the state.

Florida’s solar story is an example of how citizen power can defeat special interests and make us all better off. And for Florida, the move to clean energy comes not a moment too soon.

Photo Credit: Tournament Committee via Flickr

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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