This week, Florida’s Public Service Commission, the body that sets policy governing the state’s utility industry, heard testimony about a plan to create the nation’s largest community solar program, SolarTogether, which allows customers to reap the benefits of solar power generation even if they don’t have the means to generate solar energy on their own. The program has been endorsed by environmental energy watchdog Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), VoteSolar and the state’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light, which announced the novel program last summer.
The endorsements came after those consumer groups negotiated with FP&L to expand access to the program to low-income households, increase the economic benefits to those households, and make allowances for other ratepayers who aren’t able to participate in the program. SACE, VoteSolar and even Wal-Mart have signed off on the deal.
But it’s not been all smooth sailing for SolarTogether, mostly because of public handwringing by Florida’s Office of Public Counsel (OPC), which is a creation of the Florida Legislature, and whose sole job is to advocate on behalf of Florida’s energy consumers. OPC requested the hearing before the Public Service Commission, according to them, so that they and the commissioners could better understand the transformative impact of FP&L’s program.
But in his opening statement, Charles Rhewinkle testified that OPC is “reluctantly involved in this case,” and tried to make it clear that OPC agrees with Florida Power & Light “on the benefits of solar.”
Parts of OPC’s testimony seemed to indicate support for FP&L’s broad push into solar power generation.
“Public Counsel wants all customers to benefit from advances in solar generation,” Rhewinkle said. “We have met and talked to sincere people at FP&L who want to make solar work. The public counsel wants to be a part of making solar power work.”
Yet moments later, OPC made it clear they oppose the plan, even if they failed to make it clear why. Rhewinkle’s testimony acknowledged the groundbreaking nature of the concept, then cautioned regulators they were being asked to make a “fundamental change in the way regulation occurs” related to the program.
Indeed, FP&L is proposing a novel approach to deliver solar to customers who want it, and the scale on which they are building promises to transform energy generation in Florida. But Rhewinkle delved into a litany of acronyms and accounting formulas that he claimed made the program unfair to some customers who might otherwise not be able to participate. And he failed to adequately explain why those reasons were sufficient to kill off one of the most innovative and inclusive programs in the nation.
The hearing left industry observers scratching their heads about the stated reasons for OPC’s foot-dragging. OPC’s stated mission is to represent all Floridians before the Public Service Commission, and yet it’s well established that an overwhelming majority of Floridians support increased solar energy production and demand more access to solar energy. SolarTogether appears to offer exactly that, in a responsible manner that satisfies even some of the most vocal industry watchdogs.