Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in the statewide primary yesterday that clears the way for solar and other renewable energy systems to receive a property-tax exemption, creating the opportunity for distributed solar to expand in the Sunshine State.

Amendment 4 specifically authorizes the Florida legislature to exempt solar projects on commercial and industrial properties from both the tangible personal property tax and the ad valorem real estate taxes. The amendment builds upon existing law that exempts residential customers from paying property taxes on renewable energy systems, including solar PV, wind turbines, solar water heaters and geothermal heat pumps.

Support for the pro-solar policy change came from across party lines and among a strong majority of voters, with more than 70 percent casting ballots in favor of Amendment 4. The ballot initiative was put forth by State Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) along with Representatives Ray Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers) and Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach), and passed with unanimous support from the Florida legislature in March.

“The overwhelming support of Amendment 4 by Florida voters shows that the Florida market for advanced and alternative energy is open for business. The clean energy jobs that will be created here will continue the job growth in our state, and I look forward to continuing to champion reforms to our energy market in support of a more diversified range of affordable options for Florida consumers,” said Senator Brandes, in statement.

“Eliminating high tax barriers will unleash the potential of the Sunshine State to become a leader in solar energy production,” said Representative Rodrigues. “Floridians will benefit from lower taxes, reduced energy costs and the increased security of a diversified energy portfolio.”

Amendment 4 drew broad support from business groups, clean energy advocates, and environmental organizations, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Retail Federation, Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Florida Realtors, Florida Conservation Voters, The Nature Conservancy, Vote Solar and roughly 200 others.

A primary vote that paves the way for lawmakers to take up legislation on property tax exemption for commercially owned renewable energy projects may not seem like too much of a victory. But it’s a meaningful win for proponents of energy choice, given that Florida’s distributed energy market has been slow to take off.

The research and advocacy organization Solar Power Rocks gives the Florida solar market a “C” grade, noting the state’s lack of solar-friendly policies. Florida doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard, nor does it allow for power-purchase agreements -- two policies that have been key to advancing solar markets in many other states around the country.

In this context, the passage of Amendment 4, with more than 1.7 million votes, reads as a strong endorsement of policies that are favorable to clean energy, and could trigger further action.

“I really think this constitutional amendment serves as a catalyst,” Senator Brandes said in a recent interview.

“When this policy passes, and we have more commercial solar available, then I think you'll start seeing a wider adoption and a more robust discussion in the legislature about distributed generation,” he added.

But the battle isn't over for clean-energy advocates in Florida. In November, Florida voters will have a chance to vote on another ballot initiative that would constitutionally "ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do."

The amendment is being spearheaded by the Consumers for Smart Solar campaign, which has raised more than $16 million in campaign funding, predominantly from utilities, such as Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric.

Consumers for Smart Solar was launched in response to Floridians for Solar Choice, a campaign that sought to permit third parties to sell solar directly to customers through power-purchase agreements. Utilities in the state oppose third-party ownership and mounted a campaign against Floridians for Solar Choice. 

Clean energy groups oppose Amendment 1, and others, such as The Sun Sentinel editorial board, have expressed skepticism. The Florida Supreme Court approved the language in Amendment 1 in a 4-3 vote. Dissenting judge Barbara Pariente wrote that the amendment is "misleading" and would merely "constitutionalize the status quo." She noted that the word "subsidize" is also open to interpretation and could be used to block competitive solar installers.

“Today’s victory moves us in the right direction, but we must be vigilant that powerful special interests do not find ways to limit customer access to solar power,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “You can be assured that solar advocates will make a swift pivot to defeat the deceptive utility-backed anti-solar Amendment 1, appearing on the November general election ballot.”