Solar advocates champion Amendment 4 in final stretch before primary

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It's not exactly a long shot, but backers of an amendment that would make solar power cheaper are trying to make the case for what they're calling a no-brainer constitutional amendment on the statewide primary ballot amid confusion over multiple ballot proposals relating to solar.

A group of environmentalists and solar industry leaders gathered at University of South Florida St. Petersburg Tuesday to talk up the many benefits of Amendment 4, which, as we explained last week, offers tax breaks for homes and businesses that install solar.

Though the price of installing solar has dramatically dropped in recent years, plenty of home and business owners are apprehensive about installing solar because it is still more expensive than having one's electricity turned on via his or her electric utility — up front, anyway.

St. Pete City Councilwoman Darden Rice said while there's no single way to spark a jump in demand for solar in Florida, efforts like Amendment 4 can help chip away at reluctance among consumers and businesses when it comes to investing in solar energy.

"There's really not a silver bullet solution," she said. "It's like silver buckshot."

By some estimates, Florida ranks 13th in solar energy nationwide despite being third in terms of solar potential. Solar advocates blame an investor-owned utility stranglehold on state regulators, which have allowed power companies to gut their renewable energy portfolios and build more power plants. Utilities have built massive solar arrays in the state, and plan to build more, but they're still incorporating alternative energy on their own terms and have little to no competition from solar providers.

Solar advocates (and free-market capitalists, for that matter) are struggling to change state law in Florida to allow Floridians to sell solar energy they generate to neighbors and tenants rather than directly back to power companies, but an amendment that would have done that failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot earlier this year.

The tax breaks would be an effort to expand solar with a different approach.

"If we can remove the barriers, we can have everyone in Florida save money," said Wayne Wallace founder of solar panel installer Solar Source.

Amendment 4 needs approval from 60 percent of the Florida voters who go to the polls next Tuesday, Aug. 30.

While the amendment's backers are reasonably confident the measure will pass, they're concerned about a utility-backed solar amendment on the November ballot that could actually stall the growth of solar power in Florida: Amendment 1, which they call a wolf in sheep's clothing because it cements the current status quo for who can and can't buy solar power generated by rooftop panels (utilities and everyone else, respectively) into the state constitution.

That measure originally seemed like a tactic a coalition of utilities and fossil fuel-backed organizations employed in order to block a pro-solar initiative from getting enough voter signatures, but the Amendment 1 (also known as Consumers for Smart Solar) campaign's aggressive and pricey petition-gathering effort landed it on the November ballot.

"We're up against a lot of big money that really doesn't like to see homes and businesses [save money by using solar]," Wallace said.

Amendment 4 advocates are confident, though, that solar power will grow in the state because it's a good idea — whether you're embracing it from a market standpoint or as a means of curbing carbon emissions.

"We're going to win ultimately because we have a better way," Wallace said.

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