As utilities embrace solar, critics accuse them of trying to monopolize the sun

The state high court will rule on a ballot initiative that's called both devious and a break for consumers.
The Duke solar array in Osceola County is intended to provide 3.8 megawatts of electricity when it's finished in the spring. Duke Energy
The Duke solar array in Osceola County is intended to provide 3.8 megawatts of electricity when it's finished in the spring.Duke Energy
Published March 4 2016
Updated March 5 2016

KENANSVILLE

On 17 isolated acres in Osceola County near towering Duke Energy Florida transmission lines, workers are installing thousands of solar panels to capture the unending stream of power from the sun.

Once it is finished in the spring, Duke's solar array south of Orlando will produce 3.8 megawatts of electricity.

"We tend to be a quiet company," said Alex Glenn, president of Duke's Florida operations. "We really don't talk a lot. So not many people know, but Duke Energy is the seventh-largest renewable energy provider in the nation."

But even as Florida's investor-owned utilities increasingly embrace major solar projects like Duke's, critics continue to hammer the companies for what they see as antisolar policies meant to extend their monopoly of electricity generation. The latest battle in that war comes Monday at the Florida Supreme Court.

Justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments on a proposed Consumers for Smart Solar amendment to Florida's Constitution. Backed by the big utilities, supporters say the amendment will help the rooftop solar industry flourish. The court must approve the amendment's wording to ensure it is not misleading before it is placed on the 2016 ballot for voter consideration.

To many green energy supporters, the amendment is a misleading bit of public trickery that makes consumers believe a vote for the proposal will help the solar industry grow.

"What makes it so insidious is that they are trying to extend their monopoly for burning fossil fuels to the sun," said David Guest, managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization. "But the sun is not theirs."

Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Smart Solar, calls comments like that "irresponsible."

"Our amendment does nothing but encourage solar in Florida," Bascom said. "Our amendment is not misleading."

The past year has seen a bitter and confusing fight over two dueling constitutional amendments, Smart Solar's proposal and another backed by Floridians for Solar Choice.

The Solar Choice amendment came first and was billed as allowing Floridians to lease solar panels from a company that would then sell low-cost power to them and neighboring properties. Right now, Floridians who want solar power must purchase the panels, often a large investment. That high cost makes solar unappealing to many people.

Currently, 24 states specifically allow an entity to build a solar system on a customer's property and then sell the power to the customer.

A group backed by the state's utilities, including TECO Energy and Duke, then filed the competing Smart Solar amendment proposal that, critics said, was meant to confuse voters and defeat the Solar Choice amendment the utilities detested.

Solar Choice officials fell short of getting the 683,149 signatures on petitions from 14 of the state's 27 congressional districts required to place the proposed amendment on the ballot. Solar Choice now says it may try again in 2018.

What would the utility-based Smart Solar amendment the Supreme Court considers Monday do?

It would preserve the status quo, allowing homeowners and businesses to sell electricity generated by their solar panels back to the utilities at retail cost as long as they own the solar equipment.

Critics of the Smart Solar proposal are especially angered that the amendment would enshrine in the state Constitution current state law allowing solar users to be charged an extra fee by utilities to connect to their electric grid.

"The amendment is a wolf in sheep's clothing," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has been the main financial backer of the Solar Choice proposal. "They actually have the words 'solar choice' on their ballot amendment. It's the most devious thing. But there is nothing in their amendment that is really a choice. They are effectively enshrining the status quo. That in and of itself is deceptive."

Smart Solar officials said their amendment would protect consumers from predatory companies that would lock customers into long-term contracts for solar equipment. These companies would otherwise be "free from any burden of consumer protection rules," Bascom said.

The amendment "provides constitutional protection for the right of individual ownership of solar equipment, and solar power generation," she said. "It safeguards the role of state and local government to protect consumers — both those who choose solar and those who do not."

All electric customers support the upkeep of a utility's electric grid — from the power plant generating electricity to the transmission lines running to homes — through their electric bill.

So if solar users are still connected to the utility grid, either to sell electricity back to the utility or other electricity users, or to receive backup power when solar can't meet all their energy needs, are they getting a free ride on the backs of consumers who don't use solar?

Florida's utilities say it is a question of fairness that everyone pays the fair share to maintain the grid.

The amendment, said Duke's Glenn, "provides protections for customers who don't have solar, who don't want it, who can't afford to put $30,000 worth of panels on their roof, who can't because they rent, they have a condo, or they don't want to drill 18 holes in their roof." Glenn noted that only 20 to 30 percent of the homes in Duke's territory are suitable for solar.

TECO makes the same argument. Spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the Smart Solar amendment "would make sure that electric customers who have solar systems are not subsidized by those who do not have solar."

Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, calls that nonsense and says it essentially penalizes solar customers for using less electricity.

"They are saying because I use less electricity, I still have to pay you," he said. "That is the kind of thinking that takes hold when you have a monopoly."

Meantime, Florida's electric utilities and others across the nation are moving to build their own solar projects and promise more to come. Duke, for example, plans up to 500 megawatts of solar generation in the next decade. Critics, though, question whether there is some double standard being displayed by big energy companies.

"If they own it, you are still writing them a check for those solar electrons," Smith said. "Don't get me wrong, we are totally happy with the utilities using solar. We have no problem with that. We have a problem with why is it good for the goose but not for the gander."

Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] Follow @Times_Levesque.

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