Ah, the promise of solar power, harvesting all that supposedly “free” energy from the abundant sunshine that gives Florida its nickname. Few emerging technologies have ever benefited from universal media praise and government support quite like the solar panel manufacturing and installation industry. And why shouldn’t newspaper journalists and editors lavish their praise? After all, what possible downside could there be when a homeowner has only to buy a few solar panels and slap them on the roof to enjoy free, limitless, environmentally-friendly energy?
As it turns out, there’s more than a few downsides to rooftop solar, starting with the fact that households who don’t have solar, or can’t afford solar, or just don’t want solar, still end up subsidizing the costs for those that do. Unfortunately, the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel don’t want to hear about those people. Nor do they want their readers to hear about them, either. We know this because they relentlessly refuse to publish some of the most salient arguments against the overly charitable regulatory environment governing rooftop solar in Florida. The bottom line is that even after all the technological advances of rooftop solar over the years, the industry still cannot survive economically on its own without generous financial support from government and regulators.
The issue came to a head this year when lawmakers passed House Bill 741, providing Florida utilities with the ability to phase in a cost recovery program that would more equitably distribute the true costs of private solar installations. Fortunately, a majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate – Republicans and Democrats alike – voted to pass the bill, which will slowly phase out the unfair practice of non-solar owners subsidizing the costs for other people to operate their own rooftop solar.
Among the many arguments against the home solar industry are the extremely high up-front costs, which require tax breaks and government subsidies to make an even remotely competitive case for installation. But even with that, there still exists a lengthy slog to reach a breakeven point, estimated at around two decades, before a homeowner realizes the first penny of financial benefit. Even with government subsidies, the alleged benefits would still never arrive at all if the homeowner couldn’t also take advantage of the financial imbalance that exists in the form of an extremely generous reimbursement rate paid by the local power company (a program called “net metering”) in exchange for any excess power the homeowner manages to produce and sell to his or her fellow customers.
In short, without government subsidies, without an overly generous net metering credit, and without the essential connection to the existing power grid that allows rooftop solar owners sell power when the sun is shining, any investment in small-scale rooftop solar is still a major financial loser. Period.
The unacknowledged truth about rooftop solar is that the systems must be connected to the existing power grid, using lines, equipment, and expertise provided for and maintained by their local utility. That’s because solar systems are great at generating plenty of energy when nobody wants it – during the day when fewer people are at home – and terrible at providing energy at night, during peak demand times. Since most people can’t afford a battery backup system to store all that extra energy for later use, it has to go somewhere. So rooftop solar owners rely on their local utility to take the energy off their hands by using the utility’s connections and equipment to backflow the electricity to other customers.
Managing all that off-peak energy generation has become the local utility’s problem. And it’s an expensive one at that.
While electricity generated by a rooftop solar panel is indistinguishable from electricity generated by a utility-scale power plant, the difference is that solar rooftop customers are providing electricity only, while the utility provides other services, including power storage, grid repair, resiliency improvements and off-peak power generation. It’s worth stressing again that electricity sent back to the grid by a solar rooftop customer usually comes during off-peak times when it is not needed, straining the grid and existing utility infrastructure designed to distribute power to homes, not transfer between them.
So while rooftop solar does generate electricity, it also generates costs for utilities to manage. Meanwhile, the utility is required under federal and state mandates to deliver electricity to all customers at all times, regardless of changes in demand. Providing highly reliable, on demand power for millions of customers is no simple task, nor is it free.
If people want to invest in rooftop solar panels at their true cost, nobody is stopping that investment. But the Orlando and Sun Sentinel editorial boards are working hard to stop the truth from reaching their reader’s ears. They don’t care that Florida’s utility customers – those who either don’t want or can’t afford rooftop solar – are currently forced to shoulder the burden of rooftop solar costs so their real owners can recoup their investment faster.
That’s wrong, and the Sentinel’s editors know it.