9 Investigates: Solar energy debate casts shade on Sunshine State

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida, the third-largest state in the union, has on average 236 days of sunshine each year.  Despite the population and the abundant sunshine, Florida is behind 11 other states in solar capacity, trailing states like New Jersey and New Hampshire.

“It’s been a real challenge. We see other states all around the country that are making much bigger strides than we are,” said Remo Eyal, owner of Superior Solar Systems in Altamonte Springs.  “It’s unfortunate that the Sunshine State doesn’t allow the sun to shine on the state.”

Solar companies said state law is standing in the way of growth.  Florida is one of only five states that ban what are known as third-party sales.

Under a third-party arrangement, a solar company could install solar panels on a customer’s home at no charge to the customer, and then sell them the energy generated by those same panels.

Supporters of the initiative said it reduces stress on the grid while providing electricity for homeowners at a reduced rate since the homeowner only pays for the electricity their panels generate.

“It makes it to where the homeowner doesn’t have to take any of the risk,” said Eyal.  “We supply the system itself and they just buy the energy that is produced from it.”

But critics said solar only works when it has government subsidies and moving so many homeowners to solar would raise the cost of electricity for everyone else.

"Of course, there is a taxpayer hook when a solar company comes to your house," said Andres Malave, of Americans for Prosperity Florida.  "In Florida, we have a highly regulated utility industry, and the solar company is trying to circumvent that by saying,'We're so special that we don't have to live by those regulations. We don't have to pay into the grid.'"

APF, a traditional advocate for deregulation, is in favor of maintaining Florida’s highly regulated utility industry.

“All that’s going to do is drive up costs,” said Malave.

Setting the backdrop for the debate is an amendment that could end Florida's ban on third-party sales.  Floridians for Solar Choice is advancing an amendment that, if it makes the ballot and is approved by voters, would allow solar panels to create up to 2 megawatts of electricity without being considered a utility.

Florida's neighbor to the north has seen a positive return on investment from solar. In 2008, Georgia began a tax credit program to increase solar installations at businesses and homes.

Georgia's Public Service Commission said the program has allowed the state to generate electricity at a cheaper rate without driving up the cost for rate-payers.

While Georgia is expanding its solar footprint, Florida in 2014 opted to eliminate a tax credit for solar.

In November, the Florida Public Service Commission voted 3-2 to eliminate the solar tax credit. The plan, which was backed by PSC staff as well as the state's largest utilities, removed the solar tax credit as well as mandates for energy efficiency by the utilities.

But not every utility is opposed to solar.

In Orlando, city-owned OUC operates a 6 megawatt plant off Innovation Parkway that provides power to about 600 homes, and this week announced plans to add another 12 megawatt plant next year.

OUC also offers its own rebates for solar, separate from the state rebates, which came to an end this year.