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Major Florida rooftop solar incentive won’t change yet

At a workshop Thursday, regulators acknowledged Floridians' concerns about the incentive going away.

Florida’s primary incentive for installing rooftop solar panels won’t be in for major changes for at least a year.

The Florida Public Service Commission held a workshop Thursday to understand the current landscape of a program that credits customers for extra renewable energy they produce. Regulators were flooded with more than 16,000 emails as of the workshop, many of which were form letters, urging the commission not to alter the program.

“That’s not what we’re doing here today,” commissioner Julie Brown said. The workshop was meant to be informational, as “the commission has not had a chance to look at our rule since it was passed in 2009.”

Related: Florida regulators will examine key rooftop solar program Thursday

Representatives for four of the state’s investor-owned utilities, including Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co., gave presentations to the commission, as did advocacy and industry groups such as Vote Solar, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Florida chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Roughly 60,000 homes and businesses around Florida currently participate in rooftop solar programs that credit them for extra energy produced. That is roughly half a percent of the state’s total utility customers. Duke Energy had the highest rate of use in its territory with 1.18 percent of customers, followed by Tampa Electric (0.7 percent), Gulf Power (0.5 percent) and Florida Power & Light (0.35 percent).

One of the utilities' main concerns with the program is that customers who don’t participate in rooftop panels have to offset the cost that solar users would have paid for power companies' infrastructure, such as power plants.

According to the utilities, as of 2019, investor-owned utility customers who don’t participate subsidize those who do by about $39 million per year.

Commissioners, as well as Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, who spurred the workshop with a letter of concern, said that mid- to low-income customers might unfairly shoulder the burden of this cost because they have historically been priced out of solar.

Research presented by Katie Chiles Ottenweller, however, indicated that just over 60 percent of solar users in Florida make less than $100,000 annually.

“We’re doing a good job of starting to reach middle class Florida,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go before we’re providing access to this tech for everyone who needs it, particularly at the lower income.”

Chairman Gary Clark requested further information on the demographics of solar users in Florida.

Utilities also noted that the uptick in solar use has increasingly required power companies, particularly Tampa Electric, to upgrade equipment that provides power to homes. This happens when a set of solar-using homes that share a utility connection require more capacity than the utility’s equipment currently provides.

“More and more, we’re seeing that new installations are affecting the local distribution networks,” said Bill Ashburn, representative for the four investor-owned utilities. When asked for specific data, Asburn referred to an uptick in requests to the commission before they charge customers for the new equipment.

Because the workshop was informational, the commission did not take any action, but expressed interest in continuing to review the issue going forward. Among the areas commissioners asked for more information on were battery storage, insurance requirements for the panels and what utilities are doing to promote these programs.

Tampa Electric said it is a “strong supporter” of solar energy.

“If there’s going to be change in the net metering policies, we look forward to participating in a collaborative effort to benefit all our customers,” spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said, "We are proud of the cooperative work we have accomplished on behalf of our customers. We look forward to continuing our collaborative efforts with all parties.”

When the commission does decide to alter the existing rule in a way that reduces the benefits, commissioner Art Graham said the regulators would likely include a grandfathering clause for those who have already installed solar panels.

“It’s really not fair to them for the next year to change net metering and now we’ve changed the game for them,” he said.

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