It’s been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. However, when it comes to American public electric utilities, the recent past seems to get cloudy fairly quickly and the same lame arguments from the utilities come around again and again. Most recently, a coalition of utilities in the Sunshine State argued at a Florida Public Service Commission hearing that solar power will not work in Florida and has also advocated to severely cut energy efficiency measures and goals across the board in order to save money.
If this skewed reasoning sounds familiar, it’s because history is repeating itself amongst southeast utilities. Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power Company, JEA, and Tampa Electric Company are taking a page right out of Georgia’s recent energy history and resurrecting a struggle with the state’s emerging solar industry over regulatory influence.
In February 2009, Georgia Power and its parent Southern Co. prevailed when the Georgia State Senate authorized a law permitting the utility (Georgia Power) to begin billing and collecting money from ratepayers to immediately pay for the cost of nuclear power plants still under construction, despite the ratepayers receiving no actual power despite paying a higher rate. On the same day this nuclear finance charge went into law, Georgia Power began its historic push to discourage ‘costly’ solar energy and energy efficiency requirements by rolling out a statewide anti-solar propaganda campaign. Many Georgians still have copies of the Georgia Power presentation made across the state in 2009 by their head of “Renewable Energy” that prompted the idea in Georgia that solar would not work — not only because it was too costly, but because there was “too much humidity” and “too many clouds” in Georgia.
Although no expense was spared by the utilities in order to distort the truth to keep solar at bay, the citizens and ratepayers of Georgia stood firm, and ultimately demanded the truth from the Georgia Public Service Commission (an independently statewide elected body). Since then, Georgia has been able to accomplish its first act on solar based on its true economic benefits, rather than utility propaganda designed to deceive the ratepayers and influence the state’s energy regulation and policy. But it didn’t happen until the people of Georgia, the voters, demanded that their elected officials actually represent them.
Now, the ugly scene is playing out similarly in the neighboring state of Florida where a coalition of utilities is embarking on a similar strategy to intentionally deceive the public and attempt to control the regulators under their thumbs. Right now, the utilities appear to have forgotten what happened in Georgia as they test the weakness of Florida’s state regulatory leaders and the limits of public awareness of Florida ratepayers by spreading tall tales about solar energy. Will Florida ratepayers be able to see through the façade?
A relevant analogy would be the automobile industry of the 1980’s, specifically the point when we saw auto manufacturers pushing back against early safety initiatives like airbags. Industry executives claimed air bags were only marginally effective and if not, then just too expensive to include in the newest car models. However, the public didn’t buy it, and they ultimately found that the addition of technological enhancements and safety measures allowed them to increase prices simply because folks preferred a better, i.e., safer car. Today, no sane person would drive a car without one given the choice. No one complains about the price of a car’s seat belts or air bags.
The scenario is similar to what we now see in the renewable energy industry. While many states have successfully foreseen the ultimate benefits of solar, Florida, the Sunshine state of all places, is behind the curve as compared to Georgia and North Carolina.
The adoption of a clean energy resource would clearly benefit Florida ratepayers broadly. Less pollution and less demand on Florida’s water resources are good things, not bad. There is no reason to assume that the results of these proceedings would not enable increased distributed generation around the state, offering ratepayer benefits, dampening energy price fluctuations and alleviating the need for increased transmission and centralized generation, all while creating much needed jobs as part of the renewable energy economy in the state of Florida. If the regulators do the right thing and don’t let the utilities scare them. As challenges against the status quo of the typical, outdated U.S. utility model arise, utilities are pushing back to discredit solar in order to protect their bottom line. But this push back isn’t about truth. It’s about delay. Holding on to old, outdated ways and making the ratepayer’s pay for the utilities mistakes perpetually.
Simply because Florida’s utilities are attempting to make the case that solar energy has negatives that outweigh the many benefits does not mean that Floridians can’t see right through them. The benefits of renewable energy have already been well and truly proven in states throughout the U.S. including in Florida’s southeastern neighbors, and so it’s only a matter of time before Floridians right this wrong. As rule 111(d) kicks in, and as the health care savings from lower levels of coal-sourced pollution under EPA’s MATS and CSAPR are better understood by the average American (rather than just the policy wonks), all this will change. The level of nonsense from the utilities will decline. But until the average ratepayer is well versed in the benefits of solar and renewable energy, the utilities will continue to intentionally pray on ratepayer and policy maker ignorance, and thereby influence state electric power policy by continuing to knowingly and intentionally misrepresent the facts to the public in order to secure a victory for their company at the expense of the public.
Ironically, it was Justice Louis D. Brandeis who said of open meeting laws and government transparency that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” This statement rings true today in Florida. If we can just find a way make our utilities tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about solar, then solar will be used more and more, and ratepayers and public health will benefit.
Lead image: Florida map via Shutterstock