Utilities and powerful special interests are working – often out of public view – to undermine rooftop solar power across America. In this series, excerpted from our report Blocking Rooftop Solar, we tell the stories of five utility attacks on rooftop solar, shining sunlight on the tactics utilities are using to limit the growth of local renewable energy.
Florida, the Sunshine State, has the third largest rooftop solar power potential in the country, behind only California and Texas. Google’s Project Sunroof estimates that 92% of the roughly 4.8 million roofs in Florida could generate solar power, producing up to 158,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity from solar annually, enough to power 14.8 million homes.1 Project Sunroof calculates that if all potential rooftop solar installations were built, the state would prevent 84.8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year, equivalent to removing 17.9 million passenger cars from the roads.
Despite Florida’s vast solar potential, the state languished for years with few rooftop solar energy installations. By 2019, just 60,000 homes and businesses – just over 0.5% of Florida’s electricity customers – had installed rooftop solar. This left the state 26th nationwide in rooftop solar as a percentage of all generation, behind much less sunny states such as Vermont, Delaware and Maine. Florida’s overall solar generation did grow 44-fold from 105 GWh in 2010 to 4,595 GWh in 2019, but solar nevertheless still accounts for just around 3% of total state electricity generation.
Why has Florida lagged so badly in rooftop solar development? This is primarily because of fierce opposition to its expansion from the state’s three investor-owned utilities (IOUs) – Florida Power & Light (FPL), Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Company. (Note: FPL parent company NextEra acquired Florida’s prior fourth IOU, Gulf Power, which is currently being incorporated into FPL.) The utilities’ ongoing anti-rooftop solar campaigns, backed by huge spending, have produced policies that have served as roadblocks to faster rooftop solar growth.
Florida lacks a renewable portfolio standard, does not allow solar power purchase agreements (PPAs) – which facilitate solar power financing in other states – and requires homeowners to purchase expensive insurance for solar power systems. While the state offers net metering, property tax exemptions for renewable energy equipment, and special residential loans for renewable energy property upgrades, the overall policy framework is not conducive to rooftop solar growth.
The major utilities have wielded their political spending to great effect in the state. A 2018 report by government watchdog Integrity Florida documented that the IOUs directed over $43 million to state-level political parties, candidates and committees, including to the governor, over the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. FPL, the largest state utility, was the biggest contributor, alone giving almost $23 million in the 2014 and 2016 elections. The companies also paid for an army of lobbyists: between 2014 and 2017, the companies employed a total of between 90-100 lobbyists annually, more than one for every two state legislators. In 2020, although there were no major solar-related initiatives on the ballot, the IOUs again made heavy campaign donations in Florida, contributing over $9.2 million, most of it to political committees.
The utilities try to influence how they are regulated by the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) by contributing to leading legislators who select members of the council which nominates PSC board members, as well as to legislators directly serving on the council. The council makes PSC commissioner recommendations to the governor, who makes the ultimate selections. The utilities consequently contributed over $1.8 million in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles to then-governor Rick Scott’s campaign committee and his Let’s Get to Work PAC. Finally, the utilities also made contributions to politically influential business organizations, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, to help advance their interests.
Florida utilities have a long history of campaigning against policies benefiting rooftop solar. In 2016, the state’s major utilities, plus business groups including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, spent over $26 million on a front group, “Consumers for Smart Solar,” which promoted passage of Amendment 1, a deceptive, anti-solar ballot initiative which would have inserted into the state constitution language imposing barriers to rooftop solar. Despite the utilities’ huge financial backing for the initiative, voters rejected it in November 2016.
Undaunted, utilities have continued to make it difficult for homeowners trying to install rooftop solar systems: recent anecdotal reports showcase how utilities have delayed connecting new residential systems to the grid for months, causing new owners to lose money.
State utilities also have repeatedly targeted net metering. The Florida Municipal Power Agency, a wholesale power agency which is owned by the state’s smaller municipal utilities, has worked against net metering for some time. Most recently, the PSC held a September 17, 2020 workshop to consider changes to net metering rules. The PSC scheduled the workshop after a utility front group, “Energy Fairness,” released a report claiming net metering is unfair to consumers. Energy Fairness, formerly the Partnership for Clean and Affordable Energy, lobbies for utility and fossil fuel interests, and has had ties with Southern Company, a major Georgia-based utility holding company, and with the Consumer Energy Alliance, a fossil fuel-backed advocacy group. The PSC sought public comment and received over 16,000 emails urging the preservation of Florida’s net metering program, which includes incentives for solar panel installation as well as credit for excess power production.
At the workshop, the IOUs pushed to roll back net metering. Advocacy groups, including the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, Vote Solar and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), countered with data showing that net metering saves money, promotes economic development and does not harm lower income ratepayers. The PSC subsequently reaffirmed its support for net metering. SACE ascribed the positive outcome to the advocacy coalition’s rapid mobilization of a “very strong show of support” from the public but noted “we must continue to remain vigilant” against new attacks against rooftop solar in the legislature or at the PSC.
To learn more about the efforts of special interest groups to undermine rooftop solar, and about how the public and policymakers can support the continued growth of local renewable energy, read our report: Blocking Rooftop Solar.
Image: Annual average daily solar energy resources in Florida. Lighter shades indicate less solar energy available, darker shades indicate more. Map courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.