VERO BEACH — The overwhelming passage of Amendment 4 by Florida voters last Tuesday may add new impetus to a push for more solar energy underway in the City of Vero Beach.
Nearly 2 million people statewide voted in favor of the measure, which eliminates personal property tax on solar equipment, passing it by a 72-percent to 28-percent margin. The 20,991 pro-solar votes in Indian River County were more than the combined total of votes cast here for Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Patrick Murphy in their respective Senate primary victories.
Vero Beach officials want to capitalize on solar energy opportunities in Vero’s sunny environment, but aren’t sure how to go about it. For that reason, they recently tasked Utilities Commission Vice Chair Bob Auwaerter to help develop a survey to find out how local electric ratepayers feel about solar as a part of their energy future.
Judging by the landslide vote for Amendment 4, it is likely the survey will find strong support for more solar power in Vero’s energy mix.
The survey exercise originated with the Florida Municipal Power Agency (FMPA) electric co-op, which Vero has been a member of since the early 1980s. FMPA staff pitched the idea to Vero of buying into its own solar energy project – a scheme that both the utilities commission and the city council wisely panned.
“I’m not sure we want to be any more entangled in FMPA than we already are,” Councilman Dick Winger said.
In the effort to sell Vero electric to Florida Power and Light, complex FMPA membership contracts and punishing exit penalties are seen as the main stumbling blocks to closing a deal.
In a rare moment of agreement, Winger and Councilwoman Pilar Turner expressed concern about joining up with FMPA – which Turner called “a poorly managed organization” – even for the limited purpose of conducting a survey.
Turner and Winger both said the city could write and conduct its own survey.
Turner said she was highly skeptical of a presentation given by the FMPA’s Michelle Jackson that pegged the wholesale cost of producing solar power so high it was way above the market price of electricity from other sources. “Clearly she didn’t have a clue,” said Turner, an engineer who is retired from the oil and gas industry.
Auwaerter concurred, but urged the council not to write-off the value of a survey because of the erroneous data in the presentation.
“Let’s work off what they have, and help modify to make it better,” he said.
Improvements in solar and battery technology, and heightened interest from large retailers who want to blanket their big-box stores with solar panels, could alter the landscape when it comes to the use of renewable energy, Auwaerter said.
“I think it’s important to just understand what’s going on,” Auwaerter said. “It doesn’t involve getting entangled with FMPA. All we’re doing is jumping on with them in terms of doing a survey . . . there is no obligation at all.”
He said he was told the city’s part of that cost might be $9,000 to $10,000. “I think knowledge is power here.”
Local results of the survey could inform Vero decision-makers about ratepayers’ level of interest in solar and potentially drive the city’s solar goals going forward.
Vice Mayor Randy Old was among those who urged moving forward. “The more we know and the more we can get input from the public [the better]. I put a solar system on my house 10 years ago; I think I was actually the first one in the city. I feel very strongly that Florida should have solar and I feel that we’re behind on it.”
City Manager Jim O’Connor reminded the council that investor-owned utilities are now required to include renewables and solar in their mix of power, and that down the road, municipal utilities could come under similar requirements. “It seems to be the choice of the future,” O’Connor said.
In terms of sending someone qualified to analyze and question the data being shoveled out by the FMPA, Auwaerter seems uniquely qualified to represent Vero’s 34,000 ratepayers. He serves as the Town of Indian River Shores’ representative on Vero’s volunteer commission that vets utilities issues, and over the past year has brought a great deal of industry knowledge and critical thinking to the Utilities Commission.
During 32 years with the mutual fund company Vanguard, Auwaerter served as head of the Fixed Income Group and specialized in analyzing utility companies for inclusion in Vanguard’s mutual fund investments.
Solar options the city is considering range from constructing a solar farm at the Vero Beach Regional Airport, to implementing policies to promote individual solar energy installations in residential neighborhoods – an approach that could gain steam due to passage of Amendment 4.