Florida’s lawmakers are considering a major change to the state’s rooftop solar program. A bill that has already passed its first committee hearing would drastically cut what solar homeowners get paid for excess energy sent back to the grid. Whether the program needs a fresh look or not, the bill as written is too vague and way too one-sided.
Florida currently allows homeowners with solar arrays to receive credit for electricity they send back to the grid. The state’s public utilities then sell that energy to other customers. Right now, the homeowners get paid what amount to retail prices for the excess power. Among other things, Senate Bill 1024 would lower the rate to essentially what it costs the utilities to generate power — the wholesale price. What does that mean in real money? The math is a little complicated, but the payments could fall from about 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour to about 3 cents, depending on where the homeowner lives. That’s less than a third of what they get now. If the bill passes, the bottom line is simple: Less money for solar homeowners and more money in the pockets of the state’s largest utilities.
Supporters of the bill say that the current system benefits solar homeowners at the expense of all the other utility customers. They talk about how only mostly wealthy people can afford solar panels and “working families” are losing out. They insist that solar homeowners aren’t paying their fair share for the power lines and other parts of the power grid. They call it an “unfair subsidy” that makes all the other customers pay more for electricity. Plenty of studies undermine those arguments, in part because of how few — only about 1 percent — of Florida electricity customers currently sell power from rooftop solar back to the grid. But even if the allegations have merit, this bill isn’t the right remedy.
The bill appears to have been written by a lobbyist for Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, according to reporting from the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau. Internal emails show that the lobbyist sent the text of the bill to state Sen. Jennifer Bradley’s staff on Oct. 18. Two days — two days! — later FPL’s parent company contributed $10,000 to Bradley’s political campaign committee, and a month later Bradley filed a bill with nearly identical language to the one the lobbyist sent to her office. Bradley said she was not influenced by the money, and FPL’s parent company said its political committee did not give the money “with expectation of favor.” Granted, this is how the sausage often gets made in Tallahassee, but such a close relationship with the largest utility in Florida raises suspicions when one of the main arguments for supporting the bill is that you are trying to look out for the little guy.
The bill also states that the utilities may charge solar homeowners more in “fixed charges, including base facilities charges, electric grid access fees, or monthly minimum bills.” The bill says the utility companies can use the extra fees to recover “the fixed costs of servicing customers who engage” in the solar program, without giving specifics on how much utilities could charge. Again, that’s more money for the utilities and less money for solar customers. And the bill includes no requirements that the utilities pass along to non-solar customers any of the money from the extra solar charges or savings from lower solar credit payments. So much for the little guy.
Most homeowners install rooftop solar for financial reasons. They like the idea of much lower power bills. The environmental benefits matter, as does the prospect of being more energy independent, but it’s largely an economic decision, surveys show. Senate Bill 1024 would put a heavy hand on that economic scale, entirely in favor of big utilities. Far fewer people would elect to install solar, a blow to a solar installation industry that includes about 11,000 direct jobs and 31,000 indirect ones, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Bradley, the Senate bill sponsor, has said the bill is a starting point, and she’s open to discussing alternatives including how some states compensate rooftop solar customers who provide extra power for the grid when it is most needed, during peak hours. State Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, who introduced an identical version in the House, has said he does not intend for the bill to destroy the rooftop solar industry. The bill, he said “is not baked,” and he indicated there is plenty of time to update the language. “We need to have the debate,’’ he said. “I’m not afraid if the conclusion is it’s not the time to do this.”
That’s good to hear. As written, this bill needs a serious overhaul for it to become anything but a way to gut rooftop solar in Florida and pad the bottom lines of the state’s largest utilities.
This editorial was written by the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.
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