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Florida regulators will examine key rooftop solar program Thursday

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 6 days ago By Malena Carollo, Tampa Bay Times
Florida regulators will examine key rooftop solar program Thursday. Pictured are solar panels. | [Times file] © Times file]/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Florida regulators will examine key rooftop solar program Thursday. Pictured are solar panels. | [Times file]

One of Florida’s major incentives for installing rooftop solar is up for examination by state utility regulators this week.

The Florida Public Service Commission is scheduled to hold a workshop Thursday on the 2008 initiative that credits customers for the value of any unused solar power they generate. As of Tuesday, thousands of Floridians wrote to the commission expressing support for the program.

“I think we are at a juncture in our state where we need to have a dialogue,” commissioner Julie Brown, a lawyer from Tampa, said at a late July meeting.

Rooftop solar has historically been prohibitively expensive, particularly for many homeowners. To offset the cost and encourage residents and businesses to opt for renewable energy, governments offer a number of incentives, including a 26 percent federal tax credit on any solar systems installed this year. Florida does not have a similar rebate program.

One of the major ways Sunshine State homeowners can recoup the cost of the panels and installation is through an initiative known as “net metering.” Under the program, passed by the state Legislature in 2008, investor-owned utilities can give customers with rooftop arrays credit for any extra solar power they generate.

Customers typically receive a monthly credit for the retail price per kilowatt hour to offset their bill or receive a check from the utility for the wholesale value of the credits on an annual basis.

The upcoming workshop was spurred by a letter from Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, in May. He wrote to the commission after reading a study by a group called Energy Fairness, which was critical of the state incentive program. McClure said he was concerned that the solar panel industry’s “exponential growth” was at least in part at the hands of “unscrupulous installers preying on” families duped into solar they could not afford. And he said the program appears to subsidize wealthy consumers who can afford the initial cost of installing panels, which can cost thousands of dollars.

“It is highly probable low- and middle-income families are paying more on their electricity bills than they should so their wealthy neighbors can have solar panels on their rooftops,” he wrote.

His letter echoes arguments made by utilities about the program. Power companies say that net metering is costly for them, and customers who don’t participate have to offset the cost of infrastructure, such as power lines and plants, for those who generate their own power with solar panels. Those costs are built into customers' bills.

But environmental and consumer advocates argue that those concerns don’t bear out. Katie Chiles Ottenweller, southeast director of Vote Solar, said solar users tend to have higher energy use even before using solar, which is why many opt for the technology. Using the panels often keeps them in the typical range of energy use, she said.

“There’s a very dangerous path there for utilities to claim...(that) you aren’t paying your fair share if you want to lower your power bill,” she said.

Advocacy groups such as Vote Solar and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy encouraged interested members of the public to write to the commission about the program, as the public is not included in the Thursday workshop.

“Net metering has been the critical policy that has been driving development, particularly for the residential market,” said Bryan Jacob, solar program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

As of Tuesday, about 6,000 public comments were filed to regulators.

This will be the first time the program has meaningfully come before regulators since its inception. The commission was going to look at the incentive program in 2016, but opted not to because of the timing with a controversial ballot initiative the same year.

“Amendment 1,” which purported to help expand solar in the state, was considered at the time to be a utility-backed attempt to weaken net metering, in part by imposing fees on solar-generating customers.

Duke Energy Florida, which serves Tampa Bay, said it “looks forward” to the workshop.

“We have a good track record of working collaboratively with all parties, which has resulted in positive outcomes for our customers,” spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said in a statement.

Tampa Electric Co. declined to comment.

Though the workshop is intended to be informational, regulators could take action in further proceedings.

At an internal affairs meeting in late July, Public Service Commission chairman Gary Clark said the program has “been a concern” for him, later noting the “amount of subsidy that continues to be added into the rate base.”

“We may continue to choose to do that in the future,” he said. “But I want us to do it with eyes wide open, understanding exactly what those costs are and how this is benefiting the system.”

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