Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Business

Florida energy efficiency loan reform not a priority yet for lawmakers

As of mid-December, no bills had been filed relating to the Property Assessed Clean Energy program.
As of mid-December, no bills were filed relating to the state's Property Assessed Clean Energy programs. Pictured are homes in Ruskin with solar panels, many of which were financed through PACE programs.
As of mid-December, no bills were filed relating to the state's Property Assessed Clean Energy programs. Pictured are homes in Ruskin with solar panels, many of which were financed through PACE programs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2020

A few months after Florida legislators said they would like to see changes in a state-authorized energy efficiency loan program, no bills have been filed. And with a number of high-profile issues to tackle in the 2021 session, efforts for reform may be challenging.

Property Assessed Clean Energy programs hold themselves out to homes and businesses as a way to finance costly energy efficiency upgrades, such as new air conditioners or weather-proof windows.

But a Tampa Bay Times investigation published in September found that the terms of the financing are often unclear to customers, and many find themselves with spiking property taxes that are difficult to afford. Some are in danger of losing their homes. The program has little state oversight.

Related: Read the full investigation: An energy efficiency finance program is trapping Florida homeowners in debt

The largest provider of these “PACE” loans, Ygrene Energy Fund, is the subject of a consumer protection investigation by the Florida Attorney General’s Office. As of mid-December, the investigation is ongoing, spokeswoman Kylie Mason said.

Just a few days before Christmas, there were no bills proposed relating to PACE programs. Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said that if one is introduced, it will be competing with significant issues such as the state budget and pandemic measures.

“(There) could be a historic low number of bills passing,” he said.

Following the Times’ investigation, several Florida legislators said the program needs reform, largely around protections for consumers.

Related: Florida legislators say an energy efficiency loan program needs reform

Two bills last year would have added a number of consumer protections, such as requiring that PACE loan providers check a customer’s ability to repay the loan before giving it to them, but neither was voted on.

“My hope is that some legislator takes it on and says, ‘We’re going to fix the PACE program,’” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Brandes, who sits on the Florida Senate’s banking and insurance committee, previously told the Times he would like to see reform around a technical aspect of the program — who is paid first in a foreclosure. Typically, banks are first to collect funds from a foreclosure to pay off any remaining mortgage balance on the home. But Florida law allows PACE loan providers to move to the front of the line for those funds, leaving less for banks. This placement helps guarantee some return on investment for PACE providers.

Just before the election, PACE provider Ygrene gave $112,000 in Florida political donations to Republican candidates and committees, including a $50,000 check to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ political committee.

Related: Energy efficiency loan firm spent $112,000 in October courting politicians

One Tampa Bay county — Pasco — still allows the program. Hernando County stopped its program in May. Hillsborough County commissioners at a December meeting said they would allow the program to expire this month, expressing concerns over what they said was a lack of consumer protections.

Pinellas County has never allowed the program for its residents.

Related: Hillsborough to let controversial PACE program expire as planned

Hooper said that while other large issues may take priority for legislators, how local governments interact with PACE programs may have an effect.

“If more local governments would take that same action, I think there would be more interaction with PACE loan providers to find a common ground and a consumer-friendly solution,” he said.