Florida Senate committee advances controversial rooftop solar bill

The bill is a top priority of Florida Power & Light.
A Florida Senate committee on Tuesday gave bipartisan approval to a controversial bill that could mean major changes to the rooftop solar industry in Florida.
A Florida Senate committee on Tuesday gave bipartisan approval to a controversial bill that could mean major changes to the rooftop solar industry in Florida. [ DREAMSTIME | Dreamstime ]
Published Jan. 12, 2022|Updated Jan. 12, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — In a signal to Florida Power & Light that legislators are committed to pursuing its top priority, a Florida Senate committee gave bipartisan approval Tuesday to a bill intended to restrict the expansion of rooftop solar in Florida.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee voted 7-2 on the first day of the annual legislative session to approve Senate Bill 1024, which would limit the ability of homeowners and businesses to offset costs of rooftop solar installations by selling excess power back to the company, an arrangement known as net metering.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, was approved after testimony from dozens of solar industry contractors, homeowners and providers who warned that the bill would undermine incentives for homeowners to install rooftop solar panels.

“What our industry needs is market certainty,” said Justin Vandenbroeck, president of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association. “There is no current glide path. There is no step down in this policy. It is a straight, take off the legs and fall down.”

Under the billing mechanism, solar energy supplied to the grid is credited to the homeowner or business and then sold by the utility to nearby neighbors at retail rates. The policy became law in 2008 with a goal to “offset electric consumption and help diversify the types of fuel used to generate electricity in Florida.”

Solar industry representatives warned that by reducing the incentive to offset costs, the measure will eliminate solar installation jobs, stifle innovation and lead to a reduction in investment in solar energy in the Sunshine State.

Only about 90,000 Florida customers, about 1 percent of the state’s more than 8.5 million customers, sell excess energy back to the electrical grid, but the arrangement has driven significant rooftop solar expansion. FPL argues rooftop solar could cost Florida utilities about $700 million between 2019 and 2025, according to documents submitted to the Florida Public Service Commission.

Bradley argued that there is an unfair cost-shift from non-solar users that will only grow if the industry expands, and rather than wait for that, Florida should change its policy now. Her bill requires regulators to redesign net metering rates to ensure that customers who own or lease renewable generation “pay the full cost service,” which often means wholesale instead of retail rates. Bradley said a similar change has been approved in other states when rooftop solar production reached a higher share of the market.

She echoed the utility industry’s contention that “utility-scale solar is so much cheaper than rooftop” and net metering may no longer be the best way to produce sustainable energy.

“We need to reflect: Is that the best way to do it?” she asked. “How should we allocate our resources to get to green energy?”

Related: Florida’s largest electric utility conspired against solar power, documents show

Opposing speakers make their case

Solar representatives from across the state countered her claim.

Raul Vergara, owner of Raluna Solar Solutions in Miami, warned that the bill “threatens the stability of Florida rates” because it will result in higher utility costs, not lower.

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In the last year, he said, solar customers spent $750 million to invest in solar energy, an investment that “strengthens our grid and resilience” and, unlike the regulated utilities, “nobody has to pay them back.”

“If we pass this bill and discourage private investment into solar, we are raising the rates on everybody,” he said.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, cited an NAACP editorial that warned that the bill would have a disproportionate impact on “low-income and minority communities.”

Bradley responded that the bill would grandfather anyone who currently has rooftop solar for another 10 years and argued that “the repayment theory is regressive and disadvantages low-income consumers because they’re the ones that are absorbing the costs and are not being paid by our solar customers.”

Joe Magro of Titan Solar Power in Tampa said Bradley’s “talking points were skewed.” He said that solar installation typically has a 20- to 25-year life span and warranty, so the bill’s 10-year provision would jeopardize those investments.

Jodi James of Melbourne testified that she and her husband saved for 15 years to install solar panels on their home last year, and her typical bill has declined from $350 a month to $9 a month.

If the bill is passed, she worried that not only will it prevent them from paying off their debt but allow them to be charged a host of new fees they hadn’t expected.

“We need to make this as easy as possible and for me, I’m just frightened the investment that we made is suddenly going to be eaten up with fees.”

Stephanie Provo of Vision Solar, a solar installer that has offices in Tampa, Orlando and Deerfield Beach, testified that the company employs almost 300 people, said its average customer earns $75,000, has a house valued at less than $300,000 and invests in $50,000 systems.

“This really hurts not only our business and the industry as a whole, it affects thousands upon thousands of jobs,” she said.

Support for the bill

The utility industry had its supporters.

Former state Sen. John Grant, a Tampa Republican who represents the utility-sponsored organization Seniors Across America, testified in favor of the bill.

“It’s simply a matter of fairness,” he said, adding that utilities pay a premium for the credits given to solar customers and “as the solar industry grows and more and more premium is paid to those fortunate enough to provide their own solar, it raises costs to utilities and that leads to rate increases. ... If the utility companies are going to pay for solar power, they ought to pay as they pay to any other utility that they buy from.”

Former Public Service Commissioner Lisa Edgar, who wrote a net-metering study pursued and supported by the utility industry, said she supported the net-metering policy when she voted for it 15 years ago but “much has changed” since then and it’s time for a new policy.

Also speaking against the bill were Michael Udine, vice mayor of Broward County, David Cullens of the Sierra Club Florida, Richard Pinsky of Florida Solar and Storage Association and Bradley Marshall of EarthJustice.

In the end, there was little discussion and only two no votes, from Sens. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. Supporting the bill were Republican Sens. Travis Hutson, Ben Albritton, Ed Hooper, Kathleen Passidomo, Ray Rodrigues and Rouson, a Democrat.

Rouson, who said his email had been coming in four to one against the bill, said he would support it but hoped there would be changes.

“But if there’s no change, there’s no reaching out to the groups that oppose this and suggest ideas, then I will probably vote no when it reaches the floor,” he said.

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