By adding 20 solar power plants and 1,490 megawatts of power over the next two years, Florida Power and Light’s “SolarTogether” program invites customers to participate in a groundbreaking solar program aimed at lowering costs and investing in highly sought clean energy.
The proposal projects long-term savings of $139 million because the increased use of solar would allow it to avoid costs related to other types of power generation. Most customers would be able to voluntarily participate by paying a premium each month and later receiving credits for savings produced by the program.
But there was a catch.
The original proposal, filed March 13, included an exclusionary penalty for customers who do not support the “continuity of the program,” specifically those who support deregulation efforts like the Citizens for Energy Choices ballot initiative, according to Public Service Commission documents and video recordings of a public meeting obtained by the Miami Herald.
Under the proposal’s “limitation of service,” “any customer taking service under a metered rate schedule […] and who supports continuity of the program is eligible to participate.”
After questioning from PSC staff and inquiries by the Miami Herald on how this exclusionary rule would be enforced and who would be excluded, FPL deleted the clause from its proposal.
“After carefully considering all of the information we received, we let [PSC] staff know we are removing this particular provision from the program,” FPL spokesman Chris McGrath wrote in an email Tuesday night.
At an informal meeting hosted by the PSC on June 5, FPL’s Vice President of Development Matt Valle said that “advocating for a position that would unravel this program for anyone who is a subscriber seems to be talking out of both sides of your mouth. If you want to advocate for that position, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t be in the voluntary program.”
During the meeting, PSC staff pressed FPL on how it would track customers’ so-called “loyalty” and whether advocating against the program or FPL would automatically kick them off the list.
FPL attorney Maria Moncada said FPL wouldn’t use data mining to look into current or potential customers but would instead look at “credible evidence” of people who make public statements or sign petitions.
“We will not be data mining, we will not be conducting any Spanish inquisitions of any kind,” she said. “But if there is credible evidence that someone is speaking on both sides of this … then we consider that to be unfair to the other customers.”
SolarTogether, FPL says, is a cost-effective opportunity for customers to support expanded solar power without needing to install their own rooftop panels. Through the program, customers will be able to subscribe for solar capacity from 20 new, 74.5-megawatt solar power plants.
In a press release announcing the program, FPL president and CEO Eric Silagy said it will “harness the power of the sun like never before.”
The first six solar plants, each of which will have about 300,000 solar panels, are scheduled to be ready by early 2020. The remaining 14 facilities are planned for 2021.
Just 25 percent of the program capacity will be reserved for residential and small business customers, while the lion’s share will be reserved for commercial, industrial and governmental groups, according to the proposal.
FPL opened a pre-registration period last winter for larger customers and if its petition is approved, will be opening an enrollment period for smaller groups and individuals this fall.
More than 200 of FPL’s largest energy users — Broward and Miami-Dade county governments, Florida Atlantic University, Broward College, the cities of Coral Springs and Sarasota, and 7-Eleven stores, for example — have committed to participate.
“While FPL’s SolarTogether program is poised to be the largest voluntary community solar offering in the United States, participation is limited to the capacity we’re approved to build,” the FPL spokesman said in a statement. “We have felt it would be unfair to allow customers — such as large businesses — to enroll in the program that may take subsequent actions which would work against program goals and potentially impose more costs on other customers.”
Alex Patton, the chairman of Citizens for Energy Choices political committee, has put forward a proposal that calls for the customer’s “right to choose” and would loosen the grip of utility monopolies like FPL, Gulf Power, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Company. It would essentially dismantle the utility structure as Florida knows it and allow customers to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce solar energy themselves. Texas is the committee’s chosen example of a state that has operated successfully in this way.
He said the language aimed at excluding people like his supporters didn’t surprise him.
“It’s only one series of data points. If I wasn’t scared three months ago, why would this scare me now?” he said. “It’s not going to change our goals and directives. And I’m not even sure it’s legal.”
Katie Chiles, the southeast director of Vote Solar, has been critical of the SolarTogether program for reasons mainly related to its lack of accommodations for low-income customers (customers who opt in must pay a premium for seven years before saving on their electricity bill). She said shutting out even more people, like those who support deregulation, would not be in the public interest.
“It is troubling to me that any utility would make a policy requirement for accessing clean energy programs, voluntary or not,” she said. “That in and of itself is sufficient reason for having a conversation about whether this program is in the public interest.”
Sen. Lori Berman is an advocate for community solar and filed legislation this year to establish the first statewide program. Her goal was to create at least 500 megawatts of community solar generating capacity and allow customers in Florida to purchase, lease or subscribe to a portion of a community solar facility and use their portion of the power produced to lower their energy bills.
The bill didn’t get a sponsor in the House, but Berman said she plans to file it again next year. She said anyone should be able to access clean energy, no matter what causes or movements they support.
“Anybody that wants to take advantage of solar should be able to take advantage,” the Boynton Beach Democrat said. “It’s clean energy and it’s competitive, that’s why FPL has invested so heavily in it. It’s clean energy that we want to continue to promote.”
Not all energy groups oppose the program. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has signed on in support and has also come out against the Energy Choice Amendment ballot language.
Its main argument is based on the fear that bringing retail and wholesale solar markets to Florida would derail solar projects, delay progress and end net metering for solar systems. Net metering gives customers the option to install solar and then get credit for power generated by their solar array and sold back to the power grid.
The group, which has levied fierce criticism of FPL in the past, says that it supports the huge investment in harnessing the solar potential in the state and will continue to support a more competitive solar bidding process.
However, Executive Director Stephen Smith said FPL’s controversial position clause would be hard to defend.
“We would not support the utilities using any sort of heavy-handed tactics to limit the participation in SolarTogether,” he said. “I think that the likelihood of a utility being able to actually do that is untenable.”
Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.