Expert: FPL has room to improve on solar efforts

Last month, Florida Power & Light inaugurated a massive solar expansion that, by spring of next year, will add eight new solar plants to their grid, producing around 600 megawatts of electricity and powering nearly 120,000 homes. One of the new plants, the Loggerhead Energy Center, will open in St. Lucie County next year, and will serve about 15,000 homes.
That is a move in the right direction, says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and board member of Floridians for Solar Choice. Still, considering FPL’s size, he says, you’d expect a lot more from them: “They’ve made some important announcements over the last 8 months, and they’re starting to make a commitment to grow, but for a utility their size, they’re still not there. If you were basically to do the math and calculate how many watts of solar per customer they’re doing, they’re really way down at the bottom right now.”
FPL began expanding into solar in 2009 with the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, and currently operates five photovoltaic solar plants across Florida, as well as the Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center, which runs on solar and natural gas. Even with the additional eight plants, FPL will only be able to power about 172,000 homes, which constitutes about 3.7 percent of their 4.6 million customers.
In 2015, Gulf Power teamed up with HelioSage, a national developer, and the U.S. Air Force and Navy to build three large-scale solar farms on military land. All of these should come online within the next couple of months. This project will produce 120 megawatts, which will serve about 18,000 customers, benefiting about 4.2 percent of their 428,000 customer base.
It’s telling, says Smith, that “the smallest investor-owned utility in the state is going to be the leading the largest on solar. That gives you a sense of how FPL has kind of lagged behind. It was only in the very near past when they started to step up to the plate and make some reasonable commitments.”
Smith adds, however, that if FPL continues down their projected path, they will most likely surpass all Florida utilities in solar power, because of their size. This has some Floridians very worried. While SACE welcomes and applauds FPL’s current expansion into solar, Smith claims they’ve continued to take an adversarial role against the customer-owned market segment.
In 2015, Floridians for Solar Choice tried to introduce legislation that would have helped enable and protect net metering, a process whereby residents or communities could harvest solar power, and sell the electricity back to the grid, allowing them to save considerably on monthly bills. The legislation never came to fruition, and the following year Amendment I was placed on the ballot.
Last election, FPL sank more than $8 million into promoting Amendment I. FPL claimed the amendment, which failed the majority vote by 49 percent, was to ensure consumer rights regarding solar. Critics claimed the amendment was misleading and would have meant a constitutional prohibition of net metering, as well as possibly punitive fees for those collecting their own solar power.
“Amendment I, which the utilities funded, was really in response to this other amendment which would allow third-party sales,” says Dr. Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) at University of Central Florida. “Amendment I was something they were trying to stick in the constitution that was already a law, that only utilities can sell electricity. The real reason for trying to do that was to ensure that it would be impossible for us to pass a law for third-party sales.”
Third-party solar harvesting has already become an attainable reality for many people, says Fenton. The price of solar for residents has already dropped lower than the Department of Energy’s 2020 projection. In 2011, the DOE launched the Sunshot Initiative in order to lower the cost of solar and make it more competitive with conventional energies. Their projection for 2020 was 9 cents per kilowatt hour for residents, 7 cents for commercial entities, and 6 cents for large-scale utilities. Already, in collaboration with Florida solar co-ops and using a federal tax income credit, residents are able to purchase solar energy at 4 cents per kilowatt hour.
The upfront costs for solar can be daunting, though, initially costing residents thousands of dollars if they were to install their own solar panels. That is why many residents have turned to the co-op model, which can offset initial costs, and utilities across the country are beginning to offer community share programs.
In March, the Florida Public Service Commission approved Gulf Power’s new energy share program, which will allow residents to invest in solar with a $99-per-year subscription. This will help fund further collaborative efforts in solar. Additionally, communal solar programs like the Space Coast Solar Co-op, which currently has 250 members, are beginning to take root in Florida. These communal programs allow residents to buy solar equipment in bulk and offset the initial costs.
If FPL were to get really serious about solar, Smith says, they will need to start looking at responding to a growing diversity in the solar market, support customer-owned solar, and develop better communal programs to benefit residents.
The growth of solar capabilities is beginning to outshine every other energy source by a long shot, says Fenton. “This is a paradigm shift in that alternative energy is now not an alternative,” he says. “Conventional energy is now the alternative. Solar is better, because it’s cheapest. I think the good news is that eventually Florida is going to start doing the right thing. Putting solar in is cheaper for the utilities. If you have any money to invest, putting solar onto your own roof, saves you money and puts local people back to work. And we can stop using fossil fuels by making our houses more energy efficient.”

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