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Legislation that would change Florida’s rooftop solar industry gets pushback

Florida homeowners with rooftop solar get a credit on their monthly bill for unused energy that's put back into the electric grid.
Elena Elisseeva/Elenathewise
Florida homeowners with rooftop solar get a credit on their monthly bill for unused energy that's put back into the electric grid.

Rooftop solar panels may cost more to hook up under a bill moving through the Florida House. It may also have utility companies paying less for extra energy. Opponents say the legislation would hurt the rooftop solar industry and lead to thousands of jobs being lost.

The issue involves net metering. Homeowners with rooftop solar get a credit on their monthly bill for the electricity they don’t need that’s put back into the electric grid. This bill seeks to reduce the amount of that credit because solar users get subsidies that are shifting the costs of the power grid to customers that don’t have solar.

“If this bill were not to pass, and I've got two constituents that live side by side, and one has solar and the other one does not, the constituent that does not have solar ends up paying more on their utility bill to offset what's happening next door?” asked Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Blountstown, during discussion in the House Tourism, Infrastructure and Energy Subcommittee.

The short answer, according to the bill's sponsor, is yes. So, the bill requires the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) to propose a redesigned net metering rate structure. The bill was amended to say that anyone who is using rooftop solar prior to January of 2023 can keep the current rate structure for 20 years. The grandfather clause is meant to help users who took out loans to pay for their solar panels.

“How do you explain or answer the feedback that we're getting that with this new rate structure, this industry, the rooftop solar industry will suffer or simply be eliminated? How do you answer that?” asked Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville.

"I don't want to put the rooftop solar industry out of business," replied Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, who sponsors the bill. He says he's concerned about a larger cost shift to nonusers in the coming years as solar continues to gain customers. "But I think there's absolutely a way to find the middle ground, and that's what we're working on really hard," McClure said. "I hope we get there."

In public testimony, George Cavros with the Southern Alliance of Clean Energy addressed what he called a myth -- that the use of rooftop solar raises the power bills of other customers. He added that none of the big utilities that requested rate increases last year identified lost revenue from solar customers as a reason.

"I can tell you that what primarily drives bills up is investment in assets like power plants and expenses to run those investments, like fuel costs," Cavros said. "Case in point -- FPL passed on $300 million last year in higher fuel costs to its customers and is passing on another $810 million this year.”

The PSC regulates utilities and makes decisions about rate hikes. Former PSC Commissioner Lisa Edgar was in office when rules surrounding solar were approved in 2008. She told the subcommittee those rules are now outdated.

"At the time, there were approximately 600 residential solar systems in the state of Florida. Today, according to the PSC reports, there are approximately 19,000," Edgar said. "We expect that number to continue to increase as it has significantly every year.”

Nearly 1% of the energy now generated in Florida is from rooftop solar, and Edgar says those users are still dependent on the electrical grid when they don’t produce enough power or their system fails.

“They do not contribute, however, through their rates to transmission line costs, customer service personnel, emergency preparation response, including the line men and women who are out there making sure that the service is restored quickly when necessary due to an emergency event,” Edgar said.

The committee ran out of time to hear from all members of the public who wanted to speak — many about the jobs that would be lost if solar becomes more expensive and therefore less attractive to potential users.

They did hear briefly from Matthew Chentnik, founder and co-owner of Independent Green Technologies, a solar company based in Tallahassee with 15 employees.

“Look deeper into how the grid works today and how it can work in the future with modern technology and grid-tied solar and battery systems, EVs that are coming, all the things that can help in the future. You pass this bill and none of that will happen," Chentnik said. "None of those benefits will be realized for the residents of Florida, and it will kill a lot of jobs here in the state as it has done in other states if you proceed.”

The bill passed the subcommittee, with the sponsor saying it’s likely to go through more changes to better accommodate utility customers as well as solar users.

A similar bill is moving through the Florida Senate.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.