By The Miami Herald Editorial Board
Florida Power & Light is used to getting what it wants from Tallahassee. Friendly utility regulators. The approval of a rate hike last year. Cozy relationships with lawmakers from both parties thanks to generous political donations sometimes funneled through dark-money groups — more than $500,000 this election cycle alone, the Herald reported. (An internal investigation by NextEra Energy found no illegalities.)
In 2016, utility companies tried to persuade Florida voters to approve restrictions on the expansion of solar energy with a ballot proposal that pretended to be pro solar. But Florida voters saw right through it and voted it down.
Now FPL is deploying the same tactics to again try to undermine homeowners’ use of rooftop solar energy, a long-term threat to the profitability of investor-owned power companies. As the largest of such companies in Florida, FPL is pulling out all stops to establish future control of solar energy generation — all of that at the expense of homeowners who want to install solar panels on their home.
As the Herald reported, FPL wrote a proposed law that would be “devastating” to solar energy expansion, solar advocates say, and delivered it to the lawmaker that filed it ahead of the legislative session currently under way.
Not surprisingly, FPL’s parent company followed up with $20,000 in campaign donation’s to Sen. Jennifer Bradley’s political committee. After the Herald-Times Tallahassee Bureau uncovered that in December, the company engaged in a smear campaign against Bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas by posting attacks against her on the company’s website.
Talk about big corporate power getting what it wants.
But lawmakers and FPL — with its team of seasoned lobbyists and public relations experts — say they’re looking out for the pocketbooks of average Floridians who don’t use solar.
Rooftop solar customers receive credits on their monthly electric bill for excess energy they produce and send back to the power grid through a practice known as net metering. Those credits help homeowners offset the costs of installing solar panels. But utility companies contend that the way net metering is currently done in Florida results in a “subsidy” that burdens non-solar utility customers who pay to maintain the grid, costing them an estimated $700 million between 2019 and 2025.
Senate Bill 1024’s solution is to allow utilities to lower the credits solar customers receive and charge them additional costs such as minimum monthly payments, grid access fees and facility charges.
The result, though, would likely be that it would stop making financial sense for consumers to invest in solar power at all.
And, voila, FPL then can monopolize solar-power generation and distribution.
Does net metering really add a financial burden to non-solar customers? That argument is disputed by solar advocates and studies. According to a Brookings Institution report, “The economic benefits of net metering actually outweigh the costs and impose no significant cost increase for non-solar customers.” Other states that looked at the issue also found solar benefits all utility customers. A 2017 paper by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy science lab at the University of California, found that, “For the vast majority of states and utilities, the effects of distributed solar on retail electricity prices will likely remain negligible for the foreseeable future,” though the authors noted the analysis is not a substitute for state-specific studies.
Florida lawmakers should be able to independently say how much net metering is or isn’t costing utility customers. But, to no one’s shock, they are relying on data provided by the interests with the largest pocketbooks.
If their real intent is to protect non-solar customers from paying exorbitant subsidies, they must also say whether those same customers will see a break in their monthly bills if this legislation becomes law. That’s only fair, given the potential impact this would have on solar users and companies. FPL didn’t respond to emails from the Editorial Board seeking comment.
For example, when Peace River Electric Co-op, a utility covering eastern Sarasota and Manatee counties, reduced its net metering rates in 2017, new solar installations in the area practically stopped, Bill Johnson, owner of solar installation company Brilliant Harvest, told a Senate committee in January. If SB 1024 is approved, he said most of his 20 full-time employees will lose their jobs. Other business owners, big and small, made similar predictions.
The Senate bill would allow customers who have solar installed before 2023 to keep their previous net metering rates for 10 years, and the House bill grandfathers them in for 20 years, but opponents say that’s not enough because the average life span of rooftop panels is 25 years.
“I’m just frightened that the investment that we’ve made is suddenly going to be eaten up by fees when, at the end of the day, I absolutely have … no ability to do anything but still be part of that [grid] system,” Florida solar-rooftop owner Jodi James told a Senate committee. She and her husband saved for 15 years to install solar at their retirement home and have seen their monthly electricity bill drop from $350 to about $9.99.
The Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved SB 1024 with a 7-2 vote on Jan. 11, and one Democratic lawmaker said he would like to see a compromise between utility and solar interests. The House Tourism, Infrastructure and Energy Subcommittee voted for the companion bill 13-3 on Thursday, with three Democrats in support.
The sponsors say they are listening to all stakeholders. We hope they find a compromise. But is that truly feasible when the scale is already tipped in one side’s favor?