Media Check: Sentinel Editorial Boards don’t want you to know you’re paying for someone else’s rooftop solar

by | Mar 21, 2022

 


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.

3 Comments

  1. Marv

    Several logical errors in this article. First, it begs the question of whether solar energy is an overall social and economic good. Solar can be defended in terms of energy independence and national security. Second, the payback time is grossly overstated. Third, fossil fuels do have a virtue of flexibility. It is no trouble to FPL to dial back fossil fuel production mid day and dial back up later. Fourth, on Florida’s many hot summer days mid-day is an energy demand peak not a lull.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    The article must have been written by FP&L as it contains several fallacious claims, including the lie about time for cost recovery (about 7 years), about electricity use peak (actually mid-day because of air conditioning), and the cost of system maintenance (a comparatively minor expense) versus cost of power generation.
    I have added 30 more panels and batteries so that the new law FP@L bought from the corrupt Republicans in Tallahassee won’t cheat me much. Go solar now! It is foolish not to do so if you have a home, but also buy battery storage!

    Reply
  3. BruceS

    You neglect the basic point. Monopoly Big Power has no credible claim to financial cost. It must maintain a grid regardless – it is a fixed cost. It is guaranteed 10% profit no matter what happens in the economy – it suffers no financial penalty. It makes pawns of its regulators and its legislators – they are essentially unregulated monopolies able to act on their whims.

    So, Big Power is reduced to taking up the argument of “fairness.” What a crock! When was the last time Big Power was ever concerned about fairness! For consumers!

    Big Power wants to own all means of power generation. That means they want to own the sun, too. Being a monopoly with guaranteed profits and a custom-made regulatory context, their boundless greed is once again laid bare. Your whole windy article is just that – a stench on the media breeze.

    Reply

Leave a comment

 
%d bloggers like this: