It’s a promising time for solar power in Florida, with technology getting better and cheaper. But at the very time when our utility companies should be encouraging people to switch from dirty fossil fuels to clean solar power, there’s a move to gut a key program that is the only pro-solar policy required by Florida law.
The effort to gut Florida’s pro-solar law is being sought by a local utility – JEA (formerly known as the Jacksonville Electric Authority) – but it could set a dangerous precedent for all Florida utilities to end the only state-required program that provides a financial incentive for people to use solar energy. At a time when our state is grappling with the effects of rising seas, stronger storms, and health impacts from global warming, this is a dangerous – and preventable – step backward.
We must hold Florida utilities accountable to state law which is specifically designed to encourage renewable energy.
To explain, Florida law gives people the right to install solar systems and receive fair credit for the excess energy they produce – a concept called “net metering.” Unlike traditional energy customers, solar utility customers not only use energy, they also generate it. Net metering allows customers to offset—or net—the power they consume with the power they produce. This is a win-win for everyone. Solar customers make their own clean energy, which pays for itself, and they give back the extra energy they make but don’t need.
For example, during the day when the sun is out, rooftop solar customers typically produce more energy than they consume. That excess energy goes back into the electrical grid for everyone. At night, solar customers consume energy from the grid.
In Florida, net metering encourages people who can afford to install solar panels to do so, because through energy savings they can recoup that investment in a reasonable time, in about ten years, while helping the planet. In fact, that’s why the legislature passed the law to encourage more people to go solar. Tampa Electric offers net metering to its customers.
But here’s what happened in Jacksonville: After 15 years of offering net metering as required by Florida law, JEA ended the policy in April 2018 and instead decided to start underpaying its solar customers. Only existing solar customers could still benefit for a limited time. All new solar customers would earn 70 percent less for the energy they send back into the electrical grid. And, get this – solar customers lose out while the utility can then turn around and sell the electricity from their solar panels to other customers next door at full price. In other words, less savings for those who go solar, and more money in the utility’s pockets.
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To fight for solar customers’ rights, a group called Solar United Neighbors went to court to challenge the policy. A judge ruled in favor of the utility, but gave no explanation.
Now, the case – and the future of this critical statewide law to encourage solar power in Florida – is up for consideration at the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. If the utility gets away with gutting the net metering law, you can bet that every other utility in Florida will try to do the same.
It’s critical for Florida to keep this program to encourage the use of solar power. Making renewable energy more expensive obviously discourages its use. If JEA’s move to flout our state law stands, we’ll see a race to the bottom by all Florida utilities to gut these consumer programs, and there will be even less clean solar energy in the state. If that happens, we all lose.
Patricia Brigham is president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.