Sometimes in politics, it’s tough to connect all the dots in a complicated story.
That’s not the case with the latest attempt to neuter Florida’s already-tiny solar industry. The facts here are clear.
Utilities companies wanted to make it more costly for homeowners who choose solar energy. So they wrote a bill that does just that.
They then give that bill to state lawmakers — who they’d also blessed with fat campaign donations.
And the bill passed.
Rarely do we see lawmaking that appears so nakedly transactional.
As a result, unless this bill gets a veto by Gov. Ron DeSantis, lawmakers will push Florida — a state where fewer than 1% of homes run on solar — further away from green energy.
Yes, at a time when most Americans are pushing for energy independence, Florida legislators took action to make this state more dependent upon fossil fuels. And upon the power companies that fund their campaigns.
The new law — which would allow power companies to give solar customers less credit for the energy they generate — was written by Florida Power & Light lobbyists and then given to Senate sponsor Jennifer Bradley along with a $10,000 check, according to the Miami Herald.
“Records from the Florida Senate show that FPL drafted the bill, and lobbyist John Holley delivered it to Bradley, R-Fleming Island,” the Herald wrote, “FPL’s parent company followed up with a $10,000 contribution to her political committee.”
Bradley’s committee would get another $10,000 two months later — part of more than $3 million that FPL and its parent company, NextEra, have funneled into political accounts in Florida over the last 15 months.
FPL’s money has flowed to politicians on both sides of the aisle. And several Democrats ended up siding with Republicans and voting for FPL’s bill. That includes Central Florida Sens. Randolph Brady and Victor Torres, both of whom have received campaign checks from NextEra.
Democrat Linda Stewart was the only local senator from either party to side with solar.
In the House, Orange County Democrat Kamia Brown also sided with Republicans and the utility companies.
Solar advocates say the goal was clear — to “solidify the utility’s monopoly grip on its customers and unnecessarily squash an entire industry by putting an expiration date on the current rooftop solar policy.” So says Alissa Jean Schafer, a researcher with the utility watchdogs at the Energy and Policy Institute.
I don’t know that this bill will actually decimate the solar industry. But it will definitely make it less attractive and less affordable. Sen. Jeff Brandes, one of the few Republicans to vote against the bill, called it “a sledgehammer of a bill on the solar industry of Florida.”
The general idea is to decrease the amount of credit new solar customers get for the energy they generate starting in 2023 and dropping even more in subsequent years. Basically, it would take longer for a solar system to pay for itself, if it ever does.
The final bill isn’t as bad as originally proposed — thanks largely to media coverage and activism. Current solar customers would have their existing rates locked in for 20 years. That’s a big improvement.
But overall, it will dissuade homeowners from going solar in the future because it worsens the return they can get on their investment.
FPL says critics have them and this bill all wrong. The company says it loves solar energy and that this bill isn’t about punishing solar customers, but rather protecting the financial interests of the other 99% of non-solar users.
“FPL does not oppose net metering,” spokesman Christopher McGrath said in a statement earlier during the session, referring to the term used for crediting solar customers. “We oppose the multi-million dollar annual subsidy that’s paid for the 99.5% of customers who choose not to or can’t buy a private rooftop solar system.”
The argument is essentially that, if solar customers start paying more, the rest of you will pay less.
Except there’s nothing in this bill that guarantees that.
Two months ago, I asked the two main sponsors — Bradley in the Senate and Tampa Bay Republican Lawrence McClure in the House — two simple questions:
1. How much will the average Floridian save if this legislation passes?
2. Is there anything in the legislation that guarantees customers will actually see those savings?
Neither ever responded.
That’s because “There will be no financial benefits to customers because of this legislation,” said the Energy and Policy Institute’s Schafer. “In fact … the Senate sponsor admitted that there were no cost savings that would be passed on to customers.”
Critics claim FPL has wildly inflated its “subsidy” claims and that lawmakers rebuffed efforts to independently vet the data.
All the more reason for DeSantis — a guy who has billed himself as a Teddy Roosevelt-styled conservationist — to veto this bill.
There’s no hurry to approve it, since the changes don’t start right away. And extra time would allow lawmakers to vet the data and insert language explicitly guaranteeing savings for the other 99% of homeowners … if that’s really the goal anyway.
Scott Maxwell is metro columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.