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Panhandle’s anger over FPL may have helped spur DeSantis veto of anti-solar bill

For months, the reliably Republican Florida Panhandle community has been revolting against Florida’s largest electric utility.
The bill that was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis would have scaled back how much utility companies must pay to buy excess power from rooftop solar users. Here, a Florida Power & Light solar array is floated into the Blue Lagoon adjacent to Miami International Airport in 2020.
The bill that was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis would have scaled back how much utility companies must pay to buy excess power from rooftop solar users. Here, a Florida Power & Light solar array is floated into the Blue Lagoon adjacent to Miami International Airport in 2020. [ CARL JUSTE | Miami Herald ]
Published May 10|Updated May 10

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis surprised many in Florida’s environmental community when he vetoed Florida Power & Light’s priority bill that was intended to reduce rooftop solar expansion in Florida.

Solar advocates said it was a signal the governor had put “energy freedom ahead of monopoly utility profit margins.” But in conservative northwest Florida, residents say they deserve some of the credit, as their outrage at FPL and its handling of winter price hikes became a catalyst in the bill’s demise.

“We were very happy that the governor was supportive of our request to veto the net metering (bill),” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson at his weekly news conference on May 2. He was referring to HB 741, the legislation that would have scaled back how much utility companies must pay to buy excess power from rooftop solar users.

Related: DeSantis vetoes net metering bill opposed by rooftop solar proponents

For the past four months, the reliably Republican Florida Panhandle community has been doing something very uncharacteristic for conservative voters: It has been revolting against Florida’s largest electric utility. And, in a gesture that cuts to the core of the utility giant’s expansion goals, some Pensacola officials want to establish their own municipally run utility.

Three years ago, FPL bought the homegrown electric utility Gulf Power Co. In January, when a rate increase took effect along with rising fuel prices as part of a four-year deal, northwest Florida faced sticker shock.

FPL said that average Gulf Power residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours a month would see their electric bills go from $129.24 to $137.49 in January, but hundreds of people complained on a social media site that the average was much higher. Business owners complained of having bills inexplicably triple. As temperatures dipped below freezing, Panhandle residents who couldn’t afford the increases reported being disconnected, leaving many to seek public assistance. People reported frantically lowering their thermostats, unplugging appliances, and even disconnecting their water heater to avoid the rising meter readings.

Pensacola and Escambia County, as well as six other municipalities in the region, asked the Florida Public Service Commission for a do-over of the rate increase, suggesting they were promised lower bills. An online petition, started by three women from competing political parties, had 10,000 signatures within days.

And Mike Papantonio, a nationally renowned trial lawyer from Pensacola whose firm has fought Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and the chemical industries, personally financed months of television ads blasting the “shameless greed” of FPL and the “dysfunctional failure” of the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

“This is so bad, we’ve had to spend $40-, $50-, $60,000 to get the message out there that something is so upside-down we have to do something about it,” Papantonio told the Times/Herald last week.

DeSantis cited “the worst inflation in 40 years” and said he was vetoing the bill because “the state of Florida should not contribute to the financial crunch that our citizens are experiencing.”

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Political calculation

Some are convinced the governor’s decision to snuff out FPL’s priority bill, which had received bipartisan approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature, was a political calculation.

“I have not seen an uproar like this against a utility company in Florida,” said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters, which urged the governor to veto the rooftop solar bill. “The anger over there is real. People are upset at FPL and that is real. So how could it not be a factor in the governor’s calculations?”

In hundreds of letters and emails to the governor, residents warned that they wouldn’t look kindly on DeSantis siding with the company that touts itself in national ads as “America’s best energy value” but had betrayed that claim when it ushered in a four-year rate increase in January.

“The impression we were given is that rates were going to go up a little bit and we would benefit from being part of FPL because rates would be spread over the whole system,’’ said Rick Outzen, Pensacola radio host, publisher of Inweekly, Rick’s Blog, and a podcast featuring local news. “That’s not what happened. Our rates went up because of the deal.”

Jerry Couey, a Santa Rosa County activist and Republican, said he considers DeSantis “a wonderful governor who has visited North Florida more in his first term than any other governor.”

But DeSantis “was well on his way to screwing us over,” Couey said. “And I guarantee you, he wouldn’t have got my vote if he had let FPL have its way on this.”

Residual anger at FPL

Outzen said the emergence of the net metering bill was the catalyst that amplified opposition to FPL, but the veto didn’t end it.

“A majority of people had a positive feeling about Gulf Power. It was our utility,” he said of the company founded in 1925 and based in Pensacola. “The president of Gulf Power went on to be president of The Southern Co. You knew people with Gulf Power. They were in your civic club, your church and on boards and they had a good feeling about them. As FPL started to make the transition and do away with the Gulf Power name, it started to dawn on people it wasn’t the same company.”

As the residual goodwill for Gulf Power shifted to anger at FPL, “more people were thinking of going to solar and FPL was telling people it wanted to control that,” Outzen said.

Robinson, the Pensacola mayor, said FPL’s push to reduce its net metering program was the final straw for many residents.

“These are not communities that would normally have gone this direction,” he said.

The city has tried to diversify its energy mix to 30 percent renewable “or at least no emission, so people thought it was crazy to even have the net metering discussion,” Robinson said.

“Why are we trying to snuff out something we’re trying to get going?” he asked. “If we want people to have solar, we should want as many people as possible. We need industrial solar suppliers, but we also should have the mom-and-pop operators. People felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under them.”

For the state’s largest electric utility, which wrote the initial legislation to reduce net metering, funded a lobbying effort that included direct mail and television ads, and directed $3.2 million in campaign cash to legislators of both parties, the northwest Florida pushback was another black eye in a year of bad public relations.

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

FPL and its chief executive, Eric Silagy, have been under fire for working with operatives tied to a series of “dark money” nonprofits. One of those nonprofits has figured prominently in the Miami-Dade state attorney’s investigation into a scandal involving a “ghost” state Senate candidate in 2020, who was placed on the ballot to dilute support for the incumbent Democrat in the race and ensure Republicans maintained a majority in the state Senate.

FPL blames many factors

FPL says that its problems in northwest Florida were borne by a confluence of unprecedented conditions: The cold weather prompted higher usage, fuel prices are 60 percent higher than projected, and the company uses something called tiered pricing, a new concept to Gulf Power residents.

Florida Power & Light vice president of external affairs and economic development Pam Rauch gave a presentation to the Pensacola City Council on Jan. 26, 2022, as jeers rang out from the crowd, angry that their bills were becoming increasingly unaffordable under the company’s four-year plan.
Florida Power & Light vice president of external affairs and economic development Pam Rauch gave a presentation to the Pensacola City Council on Jan. 26, 2022, as jeers rang out from the crowd, angry that their bills were becoming increasingly unaffordable under the company’s four-year plan. [ Screenshot, Pensacola City Council ]

“We understand how difficult it was for some of our customers in Northwest Florida to receive higher-than-expected power bills at the beginning of the year,” FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath said in an email.

He said that “disconnection for nonpayment is and has always been a last resort.”

“We have worked and continue to work with customers to develop payment arrangements and connect them with available financial assistance. Our commitment to serving and supporting all of our customers — including those who live in Northwest Florida — has not and will not change.”

Under the tiered pricing program, which is designed to encourage energy efficiency, FPL charges less for customers who use below 1,000 kilowatt hours and more for electric usage over 1,000 kilowatt hours, he said.

It was a change from the flat fee per kilowatt hour charged by Gulf Power, and FPL customers complained it was leading to rate increases of 20 percent to 40 percent.

Robinson and other officials blame FPL for failing to adequately prepare customers for the tiered pricing changes, including confusion over the accurate reading of its meters.

“It was the first time we’ve had it, and it wasn’t adequately explained to residents here,” said Rep. Alex Andrade, a Pensacola Republican.

A Facebook group called “FPL Price Gouging — Northwest Florida” included stories of people staying up until 11:59 p.m. on the last night their meter was to be read so they can take pictures to prove that the amounts they were charged were not matching up with the usage on their bills.

Others described how they found ways to keep their bills below 1,000 kilowatt hours, an exercise often aggravated by the fact that the company’s billing cycle may routinely fluctuate from 28 to 34 days.

Proposal: City could own utility

Although anger over the high winter bills has been tamped down recently as weather has warmed, the outrage surfaced other frustrations with FPL.

Last fall, some northwest Florida residents and Pensacola City Council member Jennifer Brahier began discussing replacing the massive utility with a municipal electric company that would focus on renewable and solar energy.

The electric bills hadn’t caught everyone’s attention at that point but, when they did, talk of a city-owned utility “went from an outlandish supposition to the talk of the town,” Outzen said.

The council held a workshop on Jan. 26 to discuss conducting a feasibility study on creating a municipally run electric company. More than 100 people showed up, many angry at their power bills.

Pensacola resident Candice Lafferty told a Jan. 26, 2022, workshop of the Pensacola City Council that she faced having her children taken away by the state because Florida Power & Light was going to turn her power off after she couldn’t afford the unexpected spike in monthly costs.
Pensacola resident Candice Lafferty told a Jan. 26, 2022, workshop of the Pensacola City Council that she faced having her children taken away by the state because Florida Power & Light was going to turn her power off after she couldn’t afford the unexpected spike in monthly costs. [ Screenshot, Pensacola City Council ]

Pensacola resident Candice Lafferty, a single mother of three, told the council she couldn’t afford the price increases in her electric bill, faced a shut-off notice and worried that if her power was cut off she faced having her children taken away by the state.

“More than half of us have to figure out if we’re going to eat or pay the power bill,” she said. “I haven’t even turned on my heat or my AC in months, let alone the past couple of weeks, because I know that I don’t have enough candles in case my power goes out because I can’t pay (my bill.)”

FPL vice president of external affairs and economic development Pam Rauch laid out why the company thought it was a bad idea to conduct a feasibility study to consider becoming a municipally owned utility. And she explained that FPL had a four-year plan to lower the community’s electric bills.

“Every year you’re going to see your bill drop, and this is just the first year, and we’re in the most painful time, but I tell you for certain that we are looking forward to helping to bring lower bills here to northwest Florida,” she said, as angry members of the crowd jeered. “… In four years, they will be aligned.”

Brahier argued that four years was too long to wait, but she struggled to get the majority of the seven-member city council to agree to launch a study for a city-owned alternative.

As FPL lobbied against the proposal, Brahier pulled the idea from the council’s agenda in February.

In April, Robinson announced he wanted to begin negotiations over a new franchise agreement with FPL, a negotiated contract that gives the utility the right to serve customers in the city’s jurisdiction, using city right of way for its power poles. In return, the city is paid a fee.

Because Gulf Power had been focused on the sale of the utility to FPL, Pensacola’s franchise agreement has not been updated since 2009, and the city now operates on a month-to-month arrangement with the utility.

Now the city hopes to use frustration with FPL to help negotiate new terms in the franchise agreement, such as requiring FPL to put more power lines underground and increase the availability of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, Papantonio has taken aim at the state’s Public Service Commission, which he says has been “captured” by the utilities it regulates because regulators are quietly enticed by the prospect of getting lucrative jobs in the industry.

“They front-end-loaded this whole thing,’’ Papantonio said. “They didn’t need to do this immediately and make us pay for it now, and the (Public Service Commission) should have realized that.”

‘Show some shame’

Papantonio sent a letter asking the Public Service Commission to reconsider the rate increase after his firm was “inundated” with letters and email requests from residents asking his firm to intervene. If the Public Service Commission grants another hearing, he said, his attorneys will be ready to take on FPL.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than tobacco, or the opioid litigation, so we were kind of always across the table from sociopaths that feel like they simply can get away with what they want to get away with, and the reason they can is it’s such a mismatch,” he said.

He says the failed oversight is a sign that the regulatory compact, under which a for-profit electric utility is given a monopoly to provide electricity service in exchange for being regulated by the state, is broken.

Papantonio has launched what he calls a “methodical campaign” to call attention to what he considers dysfunction. It began by highlighting the hypocrisy of the net metering bill and continued with ads highlighting the fact that FPL is owned by NextEra, “one of the biggest energy delivery companies in the world” with $147 billion in assets and $17 billion in profits. He said he will continue cutting new ads.

“What does it take for them to show some shame here and say, ‘I got it wrong?’ " he said.

FPL’s McGrath has said the company is “continuing to work to make electric rates more affordable in Northwest Florida by aligning them with what other FPL customers pay — but this won’t happen overnight.”

He has also said that FPL is “committed to finding a more equitable net metering solution for all Floridians.”

Hold on new legislation?

Andrade, a co-sponsor of the net metering bill and the only Pensacola legislator who voted for it, said that although FPL and the bill sponsors want to return next year with a bill to reduce the solar incentives through net metering, “There might not be an appetite for it.”

For now, many in northwest Florida are celebrating the veto.

“Even though they didn’t have solar panels, they feel like this is a victory for them,” Outzen said.

Couey, the Santa Rosa County activist, however, remains cautious.

“Let’s not forget the governor is probably gonna have four more chances on that same decision if he’s reelected,” Couey said. “So, the jury’s out, and I’m not the only Republican that felt that way.”

Correction: This story has been updated to note that Andrade was the only Pensacola legislator who voted for the net metering bill. There were six northwest Florida legislators who voted for it and three who voted against it, including the region’s two senators and Pensacola Republican Rep. Michelle Salzman.

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