Rooftop solar fans cry foul when their testimony is cut short

Plan would raise their expenses to offset future utility-rate increases

By: - February 4, 2022 12:42 pm
solar rooftop

Credit: Getty Images

In a Capitol committee room packed with people who traveled long distances to say their piece, a bill involving rooftop solar and net metering — described by its own sponsor as an unfinished product — was voted up 13-3 Thursday after public testimony was shut down with scores of people left unheard.

Sixty-six people requested time to speak at the two-hour hearing but only a dozen were able to do so, despite the committee chairman extending the hearing for 15 minutes. Many in the gallery stood and grumbled, prompting Chairman Brad Drake, a north Florida Republican, to call for order.

A man who identified himself as the owner of a solar-installation business said he did not attend his wife’s surgery that day so that he could travel and testify against House Bill 741. After Drake announced he would take no more testimony, he reconsidered, called that man forward and let him speak. The man insisted HB 741 would put him out of business and depress interest in installing rooftop solar by making it more expensive.

HB 741 is sponsored by Florida Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Hillsborough Republican. It would reduce payments that conventional utilities pay to users of rooftop solar systems for excess energy they sell to the utilities. It also contemplates requiring rooftop solar users to pay a base fee to the utility companies.

McClure said his plan would help utility companies prevent dramatic rate increases ahead for non-solar utility customers.

Net metering is a financial arrangement by which users of rooftop solar, being still connected to public utilities, may purchase power if their solar generation falls short or sell it back to the electrical grid if they generate more than they need, according to the bill analysis. McClure’s bill would reduce how much the solar users would be paid for their excess power.

Critics said the bill is misguided, is not based in fact, and would throw a wet blanket on Florida’s promising but slow-growing solar industry, with installations estimated at 19,000 so far.

McClure admitted the bill he presented Thursday is a work in progress.

“I said very clearly at the beginning that we were working on a prescription that doesn’t look anything like what’s in the bill,” McClure told members of the Florida House subcommittee on tourism, infrastructure and energy.

McClure said he believes Florida’s regulated, investor-owned utilities (IOUs) will impose millions of dollars of rate increases on their utility customers in coming years, while growing numbers of solar users climb off the corporate power grid. He said solar users benefit from being connected to the grid and should pay more to help utilities build and maintain the infrastructure for it.

“I don’t want to put the rooftop solar industry out of business. I also don’t want to come back before you in two, three, four years discussing five-, six-, seven-hundred million dollars of cost shift that has happened to non-rooftop-solar ratepayers of the state, and I think that kind of gets lost in that conversation,” McClure said.

George Cavros, with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Jonathan Webber, with the Florida Conservation Voters, and others testified that rising rates for non-solar utility customers have little or nothing to do with rooftop-solar installations.

Cavros noted the Florida Public Service Commission approved $800 million in rate increases last year for investor-owned utilities, atop $300 million in rate increase the year before, without ever mentioning rooftop solar.

“I just want to address that myth that rooftop-solar use raises bills on customers,” Cavros told the committee. “What primarily drives bills up is investments in assets like power plants. … Those costs are driving up bills right now to customers in south Florida and former Gulf customers in the Panhandle, spiking the fuel portion of their bill by 24 percent.

“Not one utility identified lost revenue from rooftop-solar customers as a reason for the rate requests,” Cavros said, and others who gave public testimony said the same.

McClure offered an amendment to his bill that would exempt current rooftop-solar customers from new regulations for 20 years, covering the typical time period for which solar installations are financed by banks. He said he would continue to consider other changes.

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, a Palm Beach Democrat, and Rep. Chip LaMarca, a Broward Republican, said they have concerns that must be addressed by way of future amendments to win their support. Skidmore said Florida’s solar community is far too small to spell doom for Florida’s giant utility companies.

“In every other state where legislation like this was introduced, solar installations were reduced,” Skidmore said. “I don’t personally think that 19,000 rooftop-solar installations represent an enormous slide into a huge abyss.”

McClure said he would continue to work with stakeholders, including owners of small rooftop-solar companies, to find the “right balance” this session for his bill. The committee passed it, with committee members Skidmore, Rep. Dotie Joseph of Miami-Dade and Emily Slosberg-King of Palm Beach, all Democrats, voting no.

Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce expressed support for the bill.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.