What’s Really at Stake in the Florida Solar Battle?

My friends in Florida often ask me why their state doesn’t use more solar energy. I used to say, “It’s coming.” But that may no longer be the right answer.

Pro-solar groups see hard times ahead in the sunshine state, at least for the kind of solar my friends are talking about — solar panels on homes and business rooftops.   

Their worry stems from a vote taken in late November by the Florida Public Service Commission to end a solar rebate program after 2015. 

Losing the rebate program, itself, isn’t the real problem. The rebate isn’t as important as it once was, given the dramatic drop in solar costs, according to Mike Antheil, director of advocacy, Florida Solar Energy Industries Association.

More alarming is what solar advocates fear may follow; they question the motivation for the vote and see it as an opening salvo to bring down distributed solar.

The commission said the rebate program was just too expensive and too few benefited from it.

“We in the solar industry feel pretty confident that is not the real reason,” said Mike Antheil, director of advocacy, Florida Solar Energy Industries Association. “We think it boils down to the simplest answer is usually the right one. The simplest answer is that the people who sell us our electricity are understandably motivated to be sure we don’t produce our own electricity.”

Antheil and other solar advocates see the commission siding with utilities and against distributed generation. It could also be described as the battle between local energy and central generation. Utilities have a financial incentive to build central generation — solar or otherwise — since they can earn a return on the investment. They do not earn a return on distributed solar panels consumers put on their roofs. In fact, the panels rob the utility of electricity sales.

If the utilities dominate solar, Florida is unlikely to develop the kind of democratic grid emerging elsewhere, one where consumers own and control their energy. More likely, solar will come in the form of central plants built by utilities.

Florida regulators aren’t sure the democratic grid is the most cost-effective way to go; the commission chairman indicated he prefers the more conventional approach where utilities socialize costs among their customers. He describe the two sides of the market as supply side (utility solar) or demand side (customer-owned solar).

“I think there is a need for solar. I’m not sure — I’m not convinced that the need for solar is a demand-side need. Maybe a supply-side need. I mean, maybe the supply-side need may be a better way of handling that need. When you have it on the supply side, you don’t have to have $30,000 in your pocket to put it on your roof,” said Art Graham, PSC chairman, according to a transcript of the November 25 meeting.

Fair enough, but are the only two choices a $30,000 bill to the homeowner for solar panels or utility market control? Policies in other states would indicate otherwise. Power purchase agreements, innovative financing and leasing all have emerged as options to make solar affordable to the homeowner or small business.

Further, is it a good idea to place the burden for solar costs on the utility ratepayer when a private market exists that wants to take up the banner?

“We are trying to shift the burden away from the ratepayers,” said FlaSEIA’s Antheil. “As a ratepayer, I have to pay for the new nuclear facility, the new coal and natural facility. I have to pay for industrial scale solar, if they choose to do that. But the solar market wants to shift that investment burden away. That’s why an incentive for a demand-side program, a residential program is so beneficial.”

Even an incentive of just five percent of the total cost of the installed system, would spur the private market to come to the table with the other 95 percent, he said. “That’s a deal for the ratepayer.”

What else could help reduce solar costs for the consumer? Better financing options and property tax exemptions for homeowners and commercial properties with solar, he said. Antheil also suggested that the state look more carefully at the true value of solar beyond just energy production, such as its ability to improve grid stability and decrease line loss.

Most of all, he said, the state needs to keep intact its rules that allow net metering — which gives the home or business the ability to gain credit for selling solar power back to the grid.

And therein lies the biggest worry among solar advocates in Florida.

“I think there is a clear threat and danger to net metering,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE). “You see them laying the ground work for this.”

He fears the state will try to impose a standby charge or adjust the rate to weaken net metering, the cornerstone of the distributed generation market in Florida.

Others take a less gloomy view of events in the sunshine state. Justin Hoysradt, Vote Solar’s regional manager Florida, says that he is “cautiously optimistic.” He pointed out that the commission has announced that it will hold an undocketed workshop (date yet to be set) to discuss future solar policy.  “The workshop is a signal that the commission recognizes that solar is an important part of Florida’s portfolio,” he said.

Solar advocates are working to galvanize support in preparation. SACE released a poll Friday showing strong bipartisan backing for solar in Florida. By almost a five to one margin respondents said they were more likely to vote for a legislator who expands the availability of solar. The poll of 600 registered voters in Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Pensacola and Tampa, also found that over two thirds of those surveyed support the state’s current net metering law; specifically 67 percent of Republicans, 77 percent of Independents and 73 percent of Democrats.

Smith said that activists plan to use the public backing to launch a strong campaign to protect net metering, first by elevating public awareness, next by seeking legislative support and finally pursuing a ballot measure in 2016, if needed.

Meanwhile, the state may be a little red in the face (and not from sunburn). The PSC actions have captured the attention of the national media. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow gave Florida a talking to on her show. “In the sunshine state they have decided they are against the sun,” Maddow said.

Hyperbole? Maybe. We’ll see in the coming weeks as the PSC releases its written decision and proceeds with its solar workshop.

Lead image: Solar Farm in Central Florida via Shutterstock

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Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry's top magazines and newsletters, among them Renewable Energy World and Platts. She serves as chief editor of EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com. Her work has been picked up by the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal online, Utne, USA Today and several other sites. She is author of the report "Think Microgrid: A Guide for Policymakers, Regulators and End Users." See more of her work at RealEnergyWriters.com.

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