FILE - Solar panel on house roof, solar energy

Gray Watson | Wikimedia via Creative Commons

(The Center Square) – They didn’t come to bury Florida’s net metering program, only to appraise it for the first time since it was adopted more than a decade ago.

That didn’t stop 16,000 Floridians, however, from emailing the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) and urging it not to change the program, which offers incentive for installing rooftop solar panels and credits customers for the extra renewable energy they produce.

“That’s not what we’re doing here today,” PSC Chairperson Julie Brown announced at the start of an informational workshop, noting “the commission has not had a chance to look at our rule since it was passed in 2009.”

Florida is one of 47 states that allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to sell the electricity they aren’t using back into the grid.

Florida’s policy was initiated by an executive order in 2007 under former Gov. Charlie Crist and adopted by lawmakers in 2009.

In 2016, Florida voters rejected Amendment 1, a utility-backed measure to limit rooftop solar expansion by doing away with the net metering rule and state connection requirements.

More than 60,000 Florida homes and businesses – about one-half a percent of all state energy users – participate in rooftop solar net metering programs, compared with 37,800 in 2018.

That amounts to about 514.5 megawatts (MW) of electrical capacity in 2019, up 62 percent from the year before.

Solar is growing rapidly in Florida partly because state law requires investor-owned utilities to offer expedited interconnection agreements to those who install solar panels.

Representatives for four of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities gave presentations during the workshop on why they want net metering rolled back and want to renegotiate interconnection agreements with solar users.

Advocacy groups, including representatives from Vote Solar, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Solar Energy Industries Association, argued net metering saves money and promotes economic development.

Duke Energy has the highest rate of solar-generated power use, with 1.18% of customers net metering. Tampa Electric (0.7%), Gulf Power (0.5%) and Florida Power & Light (0.35%) also have growing solar contingencies.

Utilities said increasing solar use is requiring them to upgrade equipment that provides power to homes, an expense they pass along to customers who are essentially subsidizing improvements they don’t benefit from.

“More and more, we’re seeing new installations affecting local distribution networks,” said Bill Ashburn, an attorney representing utilities.

Utilities said their customers are paying about $39 million a year in infrastructure costs that solar users would have paid for. This hurts low-income customers who shoulder these costs but can’t afford solar power, they said.

Not true, said Vote Solar Southeast Director Katie Chiles Ottenweller, who presented research documenting more than 60 percent of Florida's solar users earn less than $100,000 annually.

“We’re doing a good job of starting to reach middle-class Florida,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go before we’re providing access to this tech for everyone who needs it, particularly at the lower income.”

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said rooftop solar power “provides benefits to the utility’s system that can lower power bills for everyone, such as reducing the fuel burned by the utility to generate its own power and transmission and distribution (grid) benefits. Plus it drives economic development and jobs while making our communities cleaner and more resilient to weather events.”

If any changes are considered, PSC Commissioner Art Graham said, they’ll include a grandfather clause for those who’ve installed solar panels.

“It’s really not fair to them. We’ve changed the game for them,” he said.