Mother Earth Monday: Sunshine State Shills Shun Solar

Rich with solar energy, Florida could be basking in the sun, but our policies do not embrace this vision.  Instead, solar rebates and efficiency goals have been axed by the Public Service Commission.

Katie Valentine writes about this in ThinkProgress:

Florida’s Public Service Commission voted last week to cut energy efficiency targets for power companies and to do away with a solar rebate program in the state, decisions that served to scale back the state’s already paltry efforts in renewable energy.

The PSC voted 3-2 to cut the energy efficiency goals of the state’s utility companies by more than 90 percent, a move that was based off of proposals from Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric, and Florida Power & Light. The commission also voted to allow a statewide solar rebate program to expire at the end of next year, and agreed to hold a workshop before 2015 ends to try to determine how Florida could implement cost-effective solar programs.

Not all the commissioners were happy about the decisions. Commissioner Lisa Edgar said that reducing utilities’ energy efficiency targets was “not the direction I want to go in,” and that she was “uncomfortable going to the reduced goals.”

“It is a policy and it is a statement, as a state, of what our energy policies are,” she said before the vote.

And environmentalists and renewable energy advocates in Florida also aren’t happy about the PSC’s vote. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a group that’s pushed for more solar-friendly policies in Florida, said in a statement that the PSC’s vote represents an “abdication of its responsibility as stewards for energy consumers.”

“Instead of siding with customers, the PSC sided with monopoly utility shareholders, once again, by setting meager goals that promote the construction of new power plants — which earn the companies a hefty profit, while leaving fewer opportunities for customers to lower energy use and save money on bills,” SACE said in the statement. “The line between the PSC and the monopoly utilities they are charged with regulating has become increasingly blurred.”

This blurred line is one that solar advocates in Florida have increasingly focused on in their attempts to get the state to adopt more renewable energy-friendly policies. In October, just a few days before the state’s gubernatorial election, Floridians rallied outside of Duke Energy’s Florida headquarters, calling on the utility to embrace solar. The utilities’ resistance to solar and energy efficiency-friendly policies is hurting Florida, Stephen Smith, Executive Director of SACE told ThinkProgress in November.

“Nobody’s holding these guys accountable,” Smith said. “We have had a breakdown in regulatory oversight, and it’s basically because of the money Duke and FP&L are pouring into Tallahassee. They’re corrupting the process. And because they’re corrupting the process, customers lose.”

Mark Bubriski, director of public affairs for Florida Power & Light, told ThinkProgress the issue isn’t so simple. He said the solar rebate program was a pilot program that was set to expire at the end of next December anyway, and that the PSC voted to allow it to do so because it wasn’t cost effective and benefited only the few customers who could already afford to install solar panels. The current goals for energy efficiency weren’t cost effective either — the new targets agreed to by the PSC, he said, were more realistic.

“FPL has a strong record of both delivering energy-efficiency programs for customers and advancing solar energy in Florida,” Bubriski said in an email to ThinkProgress. “We love solar energy, and we, along with our customers, believe solar should play an increasing role in Florida’s energy mix in the years ahead. That’s why we’re working on multiple ways to help make that happen.”

Florida has no renewable portfolio standard and, under a rule that allows only utilities to sell power to customers, has made solar leasing and power purchase agreements difficult for Floridians. According to SEIA, the state is third in the nation for solar potential but ranked 18th in 2013 for total installed solar power capacity. Advocates were hopeful that the state’s gubernatorial election could change solar’s future in Florida — Democratic candidate Charlie Crist was a supporter of solar energy when he last served as Governor and promised during the election to continue to advance solar in the state — but Crist ended up losing the race to incumbent Gov. Rick Scott. Scott has done little to support solar in the state, and he and his political action committee accepted millions from utilities during the election.

Florida’s slowness to adopt pro-renewable energy policies is in stark contrast to the state’s particular vulnerability to climate change. Florida — and low-lying, coastal South Florida in particular — has been called ground zero for climate change. The White House’s National Climate Assessment in May called Southeast Florida a region where “just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean,” and Ben Strauss, chief operating officer of Climate Central, said in 2012 that sea level rise was such a dire threat to South Florida the region could “eventually have to be evacuated.”