The Sunshine State: Is it only a license plate slogan?

Sunrise over a filed of solar panels

Yesterday’s public hearing at the Florida Public Service Commission was a bit of a rollercoaster for those who want to see more energy efficiency and renewable energy in Florida.  When all was said and done, the Commission voted 3-2 to cut the state’s efficiency and renewables goals by 90%. However in a second unanimous vote agreed to end the existing solar rebate program, continue support for net-metering and, interestingly, hold a workshop in the new year to discuss all things solar.

We’ll leave it to others to comment on the sad implications for Florida’s energy efficiency efforts.  Let’s focus here on what yesterday’s vote could mean for solar in the Sunshine State.  Here are our top takeaways:

Floridians spoke up in support of solar.  And the Commission heard them.

Over 7,000 Floridians, including many Vote Solar members, took the time to write letters or call the commission documenting support for solar.  The Commissioners made it clear they’d taken notice, and voted to hold a solar-specific workshop in 2015 to discuss solar policy and program options for 2016 and beyond.  We are glad the Commissioners recognize that solar will be an important part of Florida’s energy portfolio moving forward, and that supermajorities of Floridians want to see more rooftop solar in Florida.

Florida’s net-metering rule rules

Commissioner Balbis, who is stepping down early next year and will be replaced by former state Representative Jimmy Patronis, stated, “Our net metering rule provides a retail benefit which is extremely important and a lot of people discount that. They think that we’re not doing enough.” He went on to compliment his colleague Lisa Edgar (who happens to be the newly elected President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners – NARUC), “Commission Edgar, I believe you were chair when that rule went through. When you count your accomplishments I hope that you count that as a significant one.” Those are strong words of support for proven policy that provides consumers who choose to invest in solar with fair credit for the valuable clean energy they produce.  Commissioner Balbis continued: “I move approval of staff’s recommendation on issue 10, that states:

‘Each IOU should continue to implement net-metering for customer owned renewable generation.’”

The Commission unanimously approved the motion.

Solar “Workshop” could be a double-edged sword

We appreciate the Commission’s recognition that solar deserves a dedicated discussion.  The key will be making sure that discussion takes place in a transparent forum with plenty of opportunity for stakeholder input.  The solar industry has argued every year that the utilities’ solar incentives are inefficiently designed: rebates are much higher than necessary, which means the available pot of money serves only a very limited number of customers before running out–which in turn cultivates a start/stop market that is never able to develop the momentum and scale that delivers real cost reductions.  A conspiracy theorist might even suggest the utilities set up those customer-sited solar programs to fail–that is, to be deemed not cost-effective.

We’ve seen plenty of states develop market-responsive programs that are designed to achieve an end — reducing costs, building scale, and delivering a robust, self-sustaining solar industry — rather than just spending money.  We are confident that when the Commission listens to stakeholders other than the utilities they will see solar policy and program proposals that enable more Floridians to go solar without raising costs for ratepayers.

In the meantime, Florida’s rooftop solar industry will struggle.  Any industry needs a stable business environment in which to operate, and yesterday’s vote introduced a whole lot of uncertainty.  We hope that the upcoming workshop will be a productive discussion resulting in a healthy, stable business environment that is worth the wait.

One other item of note: in a tangent during yesterday’s hearing, a commissioner suggested that the “Sunshine State” may just be a license plate slogan, expressing concern that the state is too rainy for solar to work.  Hmmm.  We need look no further than Florida Power & Light’s recently announced plans to build 225MW of new solar projects for reassurance that solar does indeed work in Florida.  But at some level we can understand the skepticism, because it’s abundantly clear that when we leave it to the utilities to design rooftop solar programs, they fail.  We know the Sunshine State can do better, and we’ll be fighting hard in 2015 to make it happen.

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