By Steve Contorno, CNN
Updated: Sun, 23 Jan 2022 10:02:17 GMT
Steve Rutherford had a unique mission as a Navy SEAL: Help the military harness the power of the sun.
Traces of his work could be seen around Afghanistan starting in 2010. The solar panels he installed turned the desert's relentless rays into energy that kept bases operating even when cut off from diesel lines.
When he retired from the military in 2011, Rutherford expected Florida would be a more inviting climate to install solar panels than war-torn Afghanistan. He started Tampa Bay Solar and within a decade, grew it into a 30-person operation with plans to expand. But now, the retired commander told CNN he is fighting for his livelihood.
A bill moving through the state legislature, backed by a powerful utility company, would slash the financial benefits of rooftop solar panels. Opponents of the legislation -- including environmental groups, solar builders and the state NAACP -- say if it passes, a fast-growing green power industry would be turned off overnight, casting a dark cloud over solar's prospects in the Sunshine State.
"It's going to be a crusher for the solar industry," said Rutherford, who predicted he would have to lay off much of his workforce. "For 90% of the people that work for me, this will be a significant blow for their pocketbooks."
Lawmakers across the country are weighing the future of residential solar as the industry enters the next phase of its growth. The promise of energy independence, a cleaner power source and lower electric bills has attracted tens of thousands of customers to solar. Its rise in popularity has threatened the business model of traditional utilities, which for decades relied on customers that had no alternatives to their neighborhood electric company. Some utilities are pushing back.
The implications of the fight are acutely felt in Florida, where sunshine is an abundant commodity and residents face an existential crisis from climate change. Solar industry insiders say the bill that Florida's lawmakers are considering would make it one of the least welcoming states to residential solar in the country and would eliminate thousands of skilled construction jobs.
"It would mean that we would have to close our business here in the state of Florida and pivot to another state," Stephanie Provost, chief marketing officer for Vision Solar, told lawmakers at a recent committee hearing.
At the center of the debate is the amount solar-powered homes are reimbursed for the excess energy their panels pump back into the grid. It's an arrangement known as net-metering, and it's the law in about 40 states. Some customers generate enough power to lower their utility bills to zero dollars.
Like many states, Florida homeowners are reimbursed at roughly the same rate power companies charge their customers, usually in the form of a credit on their monthly bill. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Republican who represents parts of north Florida, has introduced legislation that could cut that rate by about 75% and open the door to electric companies charging solar customers monthly minimum fees.
Bradley contended that the existing rate structure, created in 2008, was intended to help jump-start rooftop solar in Florida. She told a Senate committee that non-solar homes are now subsidizing an industry that is "mature, with many competitors, large publicly traded companies, and substantially reduced prices."
Despite its recent growth, solar's foothold in Florida lags behind many states. About 90,000 households are solar-powered, which is 1% of all electric customers in the state. Florida ranks 21st in the country in solar residential systems per capita, according to an industry analysis from the Solar Energy Industries Association, the national trade organization for solar energy builders. In comparison, California -- where regulators are also considering utility-backed changes to its net-metering policy -- has 1.3 million customers fitted with solar panels.
Advocates of rooftop solar in Florida see a familiar foe behind the legislation: Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric utility and one of the most prolific political donors in the state.
A draft version of the bill Bradley introduced was delivered to her by a Florida Power & Light lobbyist on October 18, according to emails first reported by the Miami Herald and provided to CNN by the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog organization that targets fossil fuel and utility interests.
Two days later, Florida Power & Light's parent company, NextEra Energy, made a $10,000 donation to Women Building the Future, a political committee affiliated with Bradley, according to state campaign finance records. The committee received another $10,000 contribution from NextEra in December, those records show.
In an emailed statement to CNN, Bradley did not address the political contributions or the utility's involvement in drafting the legislation. She said she filed the bill because "I believe it is good for my constituents and the state."
"Requiring utilities to buy electricity at the same rate they sell it is, not surprisingly, a poor model that results in solar customers not paying their equitable share to support the operation and maintenance of the electric grid that they use and which utilities are legally required to provide," she said in the statement.
Ahead of this year's legislative fight, Florida Power & Light and NextEra donated $3 million to political campaigns and committees. They have given to both parties, but mostly to Republicans and GOP-aligned groups. Republicans have majority control of the Florida House and Senate. The bill passed a Senate committee earlier this month on a 6-2 vote.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who ran on a promise to "drain the Tallahassee swamp" of special interests, has not publicly taken a side. DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said the governor was aware of the net-metering legislation but did not have a comment. Florida Power & Light and NextEra have donated a combined $42,000 to DeSantis since he took office, including a $12,000 donation in December, according to state campaign finance records.
"Like all legislation, we will be monitoring them as they move through the process," Pushaw said.
Chris McGrath, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, acknowledged the company has worked with lawmakers on the legislation, but declined to discuss specifics about the company's political donations. NextEra Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
"Since every aspect of our business is impacted by policy decisions at every level of government, it's important for us to be involved and be a leader in issues that affect our customers, our employees and our company," McGrath said.
Solar's expansion to the middle class
In Florida, where sunshine is bountiful, solar was slow to catch on, frustrating environmentalists who see it as a key tool in the battle against climate change. Wealthy, earth-friendly Floridians once made up the bulk of the market for solar power.
But drive through many Florida neighborhoods these days, and you'll find solar panels on the pitched roofs of modest middle-class houses. Households with income less than $100,000 now make up about half of the solar market, according to a 2021 US Department of Energy analysis. In Florida, the median income of solar-powered homeowners fell by 11% in the last decade.
Falling production costs and increased competition have certainly contributed to this trend. But advocates say net-metering has also made solar affordable to the average homeowner.
The upfront price tag of equipment puts solar out of reach for most single-family homes, averaging $19,000 not including roof improvements, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But homeowners can finance or lease solar panels over 15 to 25 years based on the expected savings on their energy bills from net-metering.
The proposed legislation "will cost thousands of Floridians ... their ability to recover their investment in rooftop solar," said Dave Cullen, president of the Sierra Club Florida.
Jodi James of Melbourne, Florida, told a Senate committee hearing earlier this month that she and her husband retired to Florida and saved for 15 years to outfit their 1,300 square-foot home with solar panels. They hoped to someday be energy independent and perhaps put the money that would've gone toward an electric bill toward enjoying their twilight years.
With her fixed income, James is worried lawmakers are pulling the rug out from under her.
"I'm just frightened that the investment that we made is suddenly going to be eaten up by fees," James said.
The bill as written would allow current solar customers to receive energy credits at the existing rate for the next 10 years. Many solar customers could still see dramatic increases in their electric bill before they've paid off their lease or loan.
Florida Power & Light says when solar customers like James receive credits for their energy production, they're not paying for their share for services the utility provides. In Florida, utilities must be prepared to serve all customers, including those with solar installations. It costs power companies money to harden the grid against storms, clear power lines and complete other maintenance, and those costs get shifted to everyone else.
Florida Power & Light says solar customers cost its 5.5 million non-solar customers $30 million a year -- or about 50 cents a month -- and the amount will nearly triple by 2025 and continue to grow as solar's popularity spreads.
Solar advocates say that figure doesn't account for the benefits of rooftop solar, such as lessening the demand on utilities to build expensive new plants, the costs of which are often passed along to ratepayers. They also note that taxpayers have for decades subsidized the fossil fuel industry.
"We believe anyone should have the right and ability to put solar on their roof if they choose to, but we do not believe everyone should be forced to pay for that decision," McGrath, the FP&L spokesman, said.
At a committee hearing for the bill, Bradley called net-metering a "regressive policy" that benefits the well-off at the expense of people who can't afford solar.
In an op-ed, Lewis Jennings, the environmental & climate justice chair for the NAACP Florida State Conference, said rate increases pushed by utility companies, not solar-powered homes, are "felt by poor communities, where too many residents already live without consistent access to electricity."
The lesson in Nevada
Florida Power & Light insists it is a part of the green energy revolution. The company has plans to build 30 million solar panels by the end of the decade. Pictures of solar farms and commitments to clean energy are scattered across the website of its parent company, NextEra Energy.
"World's largest producer of wind and solar energy," NextEra declares in large print on its main page.
Six years ago, Florida Power & Light led a campaign to alter the solar landscape through a ballot referendum. The company and other utilities tried to convince voters the measure promoted solar in Florida, according to campaign finance records.
In fact, it would've led to more fees and less competition for solar rooftop customers. The effort drew national scorn when a political adviser for an industry-affiliated think tank was caught on audio seeming to acknowledge the deceptive nature of the campaign, calling it "a little bit of political jiu-jitsu." Newspaper editorial boards lined up against it, as did labor unions and singer Jimmy Buffet, and the referendum failed.
The lack of certainty in Florida has kept some of the nation's largest solar companies from entering the state, said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. If more businesses felt comfortable operating here, it would further drive down costs and Florida could become a national leader in rooftop solar energy, she said.
"As we think nationally about what we need to do to achieve President Biden's goal of being carbon free, the residential solar piece is a critical part," Ross Hopper said.
Bradley told a Senate committee she doesn't anticipate a slowdown in solar construction in Florida if her bill passes. She said that didn't happen in other states where net-metering rates were reconsidered.
Few states have adopted changes to net-metering as drastic as what is proposed in Florida, Ross Hopper said, though one tried: Nevada.
Nevada's desert made the state an attractive market for solar companies and a burgeoning industry to lease, sell and install panels on homes was ready to take off. Then, state regulators decided in 2015 to cut the net-metering rate to a percentage of what it was and implemented new fees.
Travis Miller, the owner of Great Solar Basin who was working for a national firm at the time, said the solar industry immediately went dark. California-based SolarCity eliminated 550 jobs, blaming the new net-metering rate. Other companies pulled out of the state.
"Most of the local shops went out of business and closed their doors," Miller said. "There wasn't an industry at all."
After two years of public outcry and a lobbying campaign from Tesla, maker of solar batteries, Nevada reversed course. But the effects of the action in 2015 lingered, Miller said. Solar builders remained wary of regulators, he said, and investment was slow to take off.
Miller suggested Florida should tread carefully.
"It created a lot of skepticism and nervousness on the part of consumers," Miller said. "They thought: 'What happens if next year they decide to change the rules again?'"