Utility Talks From Both Sides of Mouth

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FPL is proud of their solar power plants, and they should be. They are a leader in utility scale solar power (which they are not calling universal solar for some reason). I’m happy to give credit where credit is due. But they talk from both sides of their mouth when it comes to small scale solar.

In case you missed it, I was recently invited to be on the radio program Gulf Coast Live on the local NPR station, WGCU 90.1 FM. During the show we had the opportunity to talk about solar power at both the utility scale and for individual homeowners. There were some mild fireworks, mostly between FPL’s spokesperson and co-contributor Neville Williams who was also on the program.

Listen Live to Solar Power on WGCU

Utility-Scale vs. Distributed Solar Energy

FPL’s representative mentioned that utility scale solar can be installed for costs 2-1/2 times less than individual homeowners. This figure is totally outlandish, but the point she was trying to make is that for the same amount of money you can install more solar panels in a large field than you can on an individual home. That point is taken, and is obvious given the economies of scale in a large solar power generation plant.

But that’s not the point. FPL sees that solar energy is economically viable for them and broadens their fuel mix. However, they want to dissuade you from installing solar power at your own home so they can monopolize another energy source. The truth is that solar power is a good long-term investment for homeowners, and an excellent hedge against the risk of rising electricity costs.

Perhaps the funniest argument made by FPL was that the payback period for a household solar energy system is too long. She asserted (incorrectly) that the payback period is about 16 years. So what? FPL makes investments in power generation plants that take decades to recoup. It’s called a long term investment! What’s the payback on a 30 year government bond? It’s 30 years! Who cares? If that’s your investment horizon, the investment may work great for you!

Disingenuous Argument Against Distributed Solar

You may have been bombarded by emails from FPL about their SolarNow program. They pat themselves on the back pretty hard over this program. How does it work? From their website:

How the FPL SolarNow Program Works

  • For $9 a month, or about 30 cents a day, you are joining other customers who are helping to support the development of solar energy projects throughout local Florida communities
  • Funds will go toward the construction of solar energy projects in local public areas, such as parks, zoos, schools and museums.
  • FPL will install, operate, and maintain these solar projects
  • These solar projects will provide shade and generate clean, emissions-free energy, moving us closer to a cleaner energy future

But wait! Look closely at that second bullet point. Why on earth would they put solar panels at distributed sites when they could just build a centralized solar field at a much, much lower cost? Well, first off, they aren’t paying for it. The suckers who enroll in the program are paying for it, and FPL gets all the credit. If tens of thousands of customers donate $9 to me, I’d gladly install solar panels at parks and zoos, too!

The main point must be just to pat themselves on the back. Distributed solar energy doesn’t make sense according to them.

Public Persona vs. Private Reality

FPL wants to be seen as your solar friend. They are doing some great things. They do have a relatively clean energy mix, they keep rates low, and they provide reliable service. FPL should be commended on those points.

Publicly they often tout all forms of solar energy, and they even provide tools for you to use to determine whether solar is right for you (as pointed out by the FPL spokesperson on the radio). I’m skeptical about the accuracy of these tools, but they are there nonetheless. Without delay, they process solar interconnection agreements as required by the Public Service Commission, allowing individual solar generators to interconnect with their system. They do this graciously and professionally.

However, they also speak out of the other side of their mouth, arguing against distributed solar like their representative did cleverly on the radio. When it comes to public policy, they employ an army of lobbyists working against distributed solar in Tallahassee. And they promote sham constitutional amendments against third party sale of distributed solar energy.

Recently I ran into a potential problem with a client’s interconnection and sparred with an FPL representative about how much solar energy could be installed at a customer’s home. FPL was saying that there was a limit on how much capacity could be installed – a limit that does not exist in Florida’s Net Metering Rule. They have placed an arbitrary limit on system capacity versus anticipated usage, and implied that all public utilities are in on it. That sounds like they have acted collusively to enact a policy that does not comply with Florida law. We will only know when they are formally challenged by a consumer through the Public Service Commission.

Where Do We Go From Here

The small scale solar energy industry has a challenge in dispelling the myths perpetrated by utility companies. It is our duty to continue calling out FPL and other utilities for speaking out of both sides of their mouth. FPL has a huge advantage, placing inserts in utility bills and sending out mass emails to a captive audience. It’s not easy to compete with that.

But I believe that consumers see through the nonsense. There are valid arguments coming from utilities about distributed solar, for sure. But the attacks on distributed solar are not warranted. We need to have a candid dialog where the monopoly status and regulatory framework is put into question given today’s technology.

We need utility companies. They serve an important public service. But their role is changing as small scale energy production becomes economically viable, and that is a threat to their business model that ties generation and distribution together. It’s no wonder they are trying to bamboozle consumers with double-speak and programs that look good on the surface for Florida’s residents.

The best thing you can do is talk to your legislators and tell them you believe that distributed solar energy production is a fair and responsible long-term policy for Florida, and that utility companies should not be allowed to monopolize the power of the sun.

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