Fla. eyes rooftop solar clampdown

By Kristi E. Swartz | 01/12/2022 07:08 AM EST

A solar installer in Palmetto Bay, Fla.

A solar installer in Palmetto Bay, Fla. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Florida Legislature is considering a plan that would crack down on rooftop solar credits in one of the largest battleground states.

The bill has a chance of passage, considering its support from Florida Power & Light Co., the state’s largest electric company, setting up a dynamic that could shift the trajectory of the solar industry in the state.

A state Senate committee passed the bill yesterday despite opposition from local solar companies, homeowners and clean energy advocates. If enacted, it would chill rooftop solar adoption and lead to job losses at homegrown businesses, they argued. Solar customers could see a lower return for excess solar and possibly new fixed charges under the plan.

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The measure is the latest salvo between Florida’s politically powerful electric companies and renewable energy supporters, who have been at odds for years over customer-owned solar. At issue is how much Floridians are credited for the solar electricity they add to the grid — an amount that can either encourage people to put panels on their homes or discourage them from it.

“This bill is a small-business issue,” said Michael Vergona, president and co-founder of Urban Solar. “When you add additional costs to the cost of solar, you take it off the table for many homeowners."

Urban Solar is based in South Florida and was among the local solar companies that said changes to the net-metering policy would remove the possibility for many homeowners considering rooftop solar. Bill supporters have argued that non-solar users are subsidizing people who choose to install panels under the current system.

Credits for rooftop solar remain a hot topic from California to Georgia. What is unique about S.B. 1024 in Florida, however, is the buzz it generated last week when FPL created a website that took aim at a newspaper article about the bill, which was filed last year.

FPL, owned by the world’s largest renewable energy developer, Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc., started “Truth Matters,” calling the story “incredibly one-sided and misleading on an issue of real importance to 18 million Floridians.” The utility also criticized the Miami Herald for running what the company called a “heavily edited version” of a response to the story.

The December story, written in partnership with the nonprofit news organization Floodlight, used a variety of documents to show NextEra and FPL’s influence on the bill and its sponsor, Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley.

Internal emails showed an FPL lobbyist corresponding with Bradley’s staff over the bill text. NextEra also donated $10,000 to Bradley’s campaign. The companies said the two are not linked.

It is not usual for lobbyists to have their hands on the pen of proposed legislation, however. FPL also is one of the most politically powerful companies in the state.

Not one word was spoken of that drama during yesterday’s Senate Committee on Regulated Industries meeting. The committee passed the bill 6-2 after hearing from roughly 30 speakers and holding some debate. The measure must clear two more committees before going to the state Senate floor for a full vote. A version of the proposal also would need to pass the Florida House to reach the governor’s desk.

Other states

Electric utilities and solar advocates have waged war over rooftop solar nationwide, using state legislatures or utility regulators as their battlegrounds.

In California, the governor and members of the state’s congressional delegation have criticized a proposal that would cut homeowner bill credits and tack on monthly fees (Energywire, Dec. 22, 2021). Oral arguments are scheduled for today.

State utility regulators in some states, such as Arizona and Louisiana, agreed to end net metering, while regulators in others, such as South Carolina, have loosened restrictions on rooftop policies, allowing solar to expand. In Alabama, environmentalists have taken the fight to federal court (Energywire, July 14, 2021).

Battles may be brewing elsewhere. Mississippi regulators are set to update net metering rules set years ago as part of a settlement between Mississippi Power and the Sierra Club (Energywire, Aug. 5 , 2014.)

And in Georgia, a net-metering pilot program has reached capacity, but the program could be up for review this year because Georgia Power will present its long-term energy plans and subsequent rate changes to the state utility commission.

Florida bill

The proposal in the Florida bill directs the state Public Service Commission to update a net-metering policy from 15 years ago. The statute has allowed customers with rooftop solar to be credited at a retail rate if they deliver excess power to the grid.

With 90,000 rooftop solar customers, however, Bradley — the bill’s sponsor — argued that the solar industry is “mature,” and the current policy is “regressive.” She employed a common argument from the utility industry by saying rooftop solar owners are paying less for electricity, requiring non-solar owners to pay more.

“The cost shift to non-solar customers is substantial,” Bradley said.

The war between Florida’s electric companies — particularly FPL — and clean energy groups dates back more than a decade. The most notable battle involved dueling constitutional amendments, which started in early 2015 and ended in failure for the state’s electric companies and associated trade groups in November 2016.

Backed by the political arm of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a wide range of conservative and clean energy groups in 2015 started a ballot campaign to let residents and small businesses enter into long-term financing arrangements for solar panels, alleviating pricey upfront costs (Energywire, Jan. 14, 2015). The measure cleared several legal hurdles but failed to get the necessary signatures to be placed on the ballot.

The electric companies fought back, financing a separate umbrella group to launch eventually what became Amendment 1 (Energywire, July 16, 2015).

The utilities traded on the popularity of solar by assuring customers that they could buy or lease rooftop panels for their homes or businesses. The amendment also could have paved the way for regulators to impose new fixed charges on residents wishing to place panels on their homes.

The measure failed in November 2016, dealing a multibillion-dollar blow to the state’s electric companies.

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