Setting Sun—Just The Latest Attack On Florida Solar Freedom

Setting Sun—Just The Latest Attack On Florida Solar Freedom

Fourth in a Series

New legislation to curtail rooftop solar options is only the latest in a series of attacks on consumer energy freedom in Florida.

In previous posts we’ve discussed how the Public Service Commission has become a rubber stamp for FPL and Florida’s monopoly utilities, FPL’s dark money links to the “ghost candidates” in 3 Florida Senate races, and the resulting lawsuits and attacks on a journalist who brought the facts to light.

Now this is culminating in a dramatic fight around SB 1024, a bill that would kneecap the rooftop solar industry in Florida. The legislation would do this by changing the compensation structure for electricity produced by residential solar, drastically reducing or eliminating savings, crippling the value of a home solar investment, and killing thousands of jobs. The bill is still being debated, but with a  final vote coming within weeks, the sun could be setting on Florida’s residential solar industry.

Solar installers and solar advocates march in Tallahassee against SB 1024 and HB 741 on February 8, 2022. Photo by Bob O'Lary.
The U.S. is now home to more than 2 million solar PV installations as of 2019. Source: Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)

Home solar arrays have allowed millions of American homeowners to control their electricity bills and save on energy costs. But in Florida, FPL has repeatedly attempted to eliminate customer-owned solar and other customer savings programs. Florida’s Solar Rights Law, passed in 2011, gives customers the right to put solar on their roofs. Today, the growing popularity of rooftop solar and energy savings measures has created a threat to monopoly utilities profits and control over customers, and they are fighting back. The solar killing SB 1024 bill isn’t the first anti-consumer measure they have pushed, but it is the most dangerous to solar businesses, and to customers wallets and freedom of choice.

2016: A Shady Amendment to Block Solar

In 2008, the Florida Legislature unanimously enacted a policy called net metering, which requires utility companies to credit solar customers for excess energy generated. This policy has resulted in a 10,000% growth in customer-owned solar systems in Florida, according to Solar United Neighbors. 

Ever since then, FPL has been looking for ways to weaken this law.

Their first attempt: using Florida’s constitutional amendment process to weaken rooftop solar. In Florida, citizens groups can collect signatures to propose constitutional amendments to our state constitution. These proposed amendments, if they qualify, then appear on the ballot and must be approved by more than 60% of voters. This was the process that FPL sought to use to their advantage in 2016.

In 2016, two citizen groups put two competing amendments on the ballot. One of them, which appeared on the August ballot, was a pro-solar initiative to allow customers to use financing to reduce the upfront costs of installing solar. The next one, which appeared on the November ballot, also appeared to be pro-solar. In reality, this second amendment was funded by FPL and a host of utility groups. 

Citizen campaigners soon found signature gatherers had all been contracted by mysterious groups, making signature collection prohibitively expensive.  As it turns out, a utility-funded front group called Consumers for Smart Solar sponsored the anti-solar Amendment to the Florida constitution on the November 2016 ballot with confusing language which made it seem pro-solar.

This campaign was backed up by a slew of glossy brochures which claimed that the Amendment “Encourages the use of clean, renewable solar energy,” when in fact, it would have done the opposite.  Community groups and solar installers ultimately defeated the amendment, despite the utilities spending more than $30 million of customers’ money to limit options to reduce their electric payments.

A chart from the Energy & Policy Institute shows the web of utility companies and outside groups which funded “Consumers for Smart Solar.” Source: Energy & policy Institute

2019: FPL Takes Aim At an Energy Efficiency Program That Saves Customers Money

The next attempt to reduce customer savings options came in a dispute over energy efficiency programs. Most utilities have programs that help customers replace inefficient old equipment with newer, less costly replacements like LEDs or Energy Star appliances. These provide the same or improved services along with lower bills for households, and help reduce total demand on the electric system . These programs have been successful across America, but Florida utilities are among the worst in helping customers reduce their bills.

Source: SACE’s “Energy Efficiency in the Southeast” fourth annual report, 2019 & 2020 Utility Energy Savings as a % of Retail Sales, page 10

Despite proven benefits, Florida’s Investor-Owned-Utilities rank near last in the country in delivering these money saving options to customers. The Southern Alliance For Clean Energy recently reported that Florida’s IOUs delivered a miserly .09% in customer energy efficiency savings as a percentage of  sales. This is 7 times less than  the average customer savings other electric companies provide across the United States. In fact, a 1980’s era Florida law mandates that Florida’s electric utilities must provide services to help customers improve their energy efficiency. The utilities charge customers for this service, but customers should see a lower bill in the long term. Apparently, this requirement was too much for FPL.

In 2019, FPL and its cronies tried to get out of this program entirely. In a bizarre but creative request, FPL asked the Public Service Commission to consider their overall efforts at expanding energy production as a form of efficiency, since theoretically greater energy supply would result in lower costs, and therefore energy efficiency programs should be thought of as unnecessary. This request provoked  “a rare rebuff to Florida’s monopoly utilities” and was rejected by the Commission—an extremely unusual decision.

This unusual decision reinforces how rarely a utility request is denied in Florida, and how even the smallest program to save customer’s money can be targeted for elimination. A properly functioning PSC would not just protect a toothless program, but require utilities to invest more in substantial savings to customers instead of funneling money to shareholders.

Public Service Commission presses FPL on controversial solar program provision during a meeting in June 2019. BY PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION

2022: Restricting Consumer Choice and Kneecapping Florida’s Rooftop Solar Industry

Having failed to defeat homeowner solar in 2016, and failed to undermine Florida’s energy efficiency law in 2019, this year FPL is again trying to kill net metering and strangle the residential solar industry before it builds public support.

SB 1024 would kneecap the nascent rooftop solar industry by doing the following:

  • It would change net metering rules to reduce the credit, or the savings consumers receive by generating their own electricity
  • It would reducing the payments for excess generation
  • It would impose minimum billing for all customers
  • It would add fees for solar users, such as minimum monthly payments, grid access fees and facility charges

Doing all of this reduces the value proposition and financial savings for customers who want to make the investment in installing a rooftop solar unit on their house. This will ultimately lead to fewer installations, job losses, and shuttered businesses.

If the residential solar industry withers or disappears, there will be no economic options for consumers to generate their own electricity. This means fewer jobs, less money in our communities, and fewer options for resilience for consumers who want to recharge home battery storage systems in the event of a storm. 

On February 8, advocacy group Solar United Neighbors held a rally in Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee, which was well attended hundreds of household owners and solar workers from as far away as Miami:

Who Decides?

The state of play is that SB 1024 is moving rapidly through the legislature shepherded by FPL’s network of allies in the Legislature. It’s time for Florida to decide what future we want. Is Florida a state where consumers control how they power their homes, spend their money, and elect their candidates? Or will we let FPL and a subservient Public Service Commission choose our future? The votes will be counted soon. If you want to retain control of your energy choices, make your voice heard below.