By Rosemary O’Hara
Gov. Ron DeSantis made a brilliant political calculation last week in vetoing a bill that would have made it a lot more expensive for Floridians to go solar. Once again in this election year, he stood up to a powerful corporation: Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest power company.
The question is whether DeSantis will stand equally strong for rooftop solar next year, when the gubernatorial election is over and FPL — a powerhouse campaign contributor — is back. His veto message left the door open.
While rooftop solar is popular with Floridians, the same is not true for the state’s investor-owned utilities, which have been granted monopolies to sell electricity in designated territories. About 75% of their energy comes from natural gas, a carbon-emitting fossil fuel that traps heat in the atmosphere, causing climate change. Nuclear accounts for about 20%, solar about 4%.
Just a decade ago, the power companies said the reason why New Jersey and Maryland produced more solar energy than Florida was cloud cover. With straight faces, they suggested the Sunshine State experienced more gray days than New Jersey.
Since then, with the demand for clean energy running high and the price of solar panels coming down, Florida power companies have been building industrial “solar farms” that will unquestionably help the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Today, Florida ranks third, behind California and Texas, in solar production.
But Politifact identified an important caveat in this storyline. In New Jersey and Maryland, rooftop solar accounts for about 65% of solar energy production. In Florida, it accounts for about 15%.
That’s how Florida’s power brokers want to keep it. They are all for solar power, they just want you to buy it all from them.
When “net metering” began in 2008, FPL says it didn’t stand in the way of the policy at the center of this year’s solar brawl. Net metering lets homeowners sell their excess solar energy back to the power grid at retail rates. The incentive helps families finance solar systems, which can cost upwards of $20,000 to $30,000.
FPL argues that rooftop solar is no longer a nascent technology that needs support. Though fewer than 1% of its customers have solar systems, it says rooftop solar is prolific and it’s unfair for other customers to subsidize those with solar panels who need access to the power grid at night or on cloudy days.
So this year, Republican lawmakers agreed to support a bill the company drafted. The bill significantly increased the fees solar customers must pay to support the grid. It also ended the requirement that power companies buy excess rooftop solar at retail rates.
It didn’t matter that FPL said it couldn’t speculate on how much ending the so-called subsidy would lower monthly bills, if at all. Neither did lawmakers consider that by reducing demand, solar customers help prevent the need for costly new power plants. (Building power plants is how these regulated monopolies make much of their money.)
The 12,000 Floridians who work in the solar sector — and those working to address climate change — were devastated by the bill’s passage. After all, net metering is the only renewable energy policy Florida has going for it. Yet again this year, the legislature refused to let emergency shelters install solar panels, let schools more easily go solar, award tax credits for energy-efficient appliances or set renewable energy goals for power companies to finally meet.
DeSantis’ Wednesday veto surprised and thrilled solar enthusiasts. In his veto message, he mentioned inflation and “the financial crunch that our citizens are experiencing.” But he focused on a detail of the two-year planned phase-out of net metering, a period when power companies feared Floridians would hurry up and buy solar systems. The provision would have let utilities recoup revenues lost to solar customers during that period. DeSantis said that amount would be speculative and hurt all customers.
Frankly, this bill double-dipped. Power companies already used their solar losses to help secure recent record rate increases. They also had secured the right to charge solar customers a minimum monthly bill to cover the costs of maintaining the grid.
But FPL plays the long game. It will be back next year, likely without the two-year cost-recovery measure reportedly pushed by Duke Energy in a last-minute amendment. Will it also come equipped to speculate on how killing net metering will lower monthly bills?
The Miami Herald reports that DeSantis received 16,809 emails, letters and phone calls opposing the bill. The number in support: 13.
But given the money they dish out in Tallahassee, the power companies generally get what the power companies want.
So the question remains: will DeSantis stand up for consumers against the power companies next year? We shall see.
Rosemary O’Hara is editor of The Invading Sea — the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of Florida news organizations focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.