Why is Ron DeSantis suddenly embracing Charlie Crist’s failed solar energy policy?

by | May 1, 2022

 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has a lot on his plate at the moment, including a nasty fight to protect parental rights, an upcoming legislative session aimed at shoring up Florida’s failing property insurance market, and, of course, his own re-election in November. While he’s the clear, odds-on favorite to easily defeat Democrat Charlie Crist in the general election, many are wondering why DeSantis has suddenly embraced a Crist-championed solar subsidy modeled on California’s unsustainable and unaffordable energy policy.

Even more bizarre: DeSantis’s stated reason for issuing his veto last week of the bi-partisan rooftop solar net metering bill makes no logical sense – more on that later. But clearly, someone inside the Executive Office of the Governor (EOG) appears to have given the governor very bad advice that ignores the history, underlying facts and economic realities of rooftop solar net metering. Either that, or he was swayed by a massive lobbying effort by progressive, pro-solar groups who pulled the wool over DeSantis’s eyes. Take your pick. But the net result is that DeSantis and Crist suddenly look a lot alike on energy policy.

The Inequities of Rooftop Solar and Net Metering Legislation

This year, the legislature sought to address a growing, glaring problem: the small but growing number of rooftop solar customers who were able to afford buying and installing the expensive systems were benefiting from government subsidies and extremely generous “credits” that power companies – or more accurately, their customers – were forced to pay whenever a rooftop solar homeowner generated too much electricity during daytime hours. Florida’s Net Metering program requires utilities, financed by their other customers, to pay the full retail rate for any extra electricity generated by rooftop solar customers.

This “full retail” provision was meant to kick-start interest in rooftop solar more than a decade ago, by effectively turning every single rooftop solar customer in Florida into a miniature power company. This in turn allows rooftop solar owners to charge all other customers in Florida, using the existing infrastructure of utility companies, the full retail rate for any excess electricity. Best of all, those rooftop solar customers get the added benefit of not having to maintain power lines, equipment, billing software, customer service, nor any of the other infrastructure that public utilities are required to maintain.

Sounds like a pretty good deal for wealthy homeowners who can afford to buy the solar panels. But someone still has to pay for all that other infrastructure. More than a decade later, it’s the 98.9 percent of Florida homeowners without rooftop solar who are bearing the costs for the roughly 90,000 homeowners who can afford to install the panels. During a 2020 Florida Public Service Commission workshop, evidence showed millions of homeowners, including hundreds of thousands of low-income utility customers, were bearing the brunt of those costs associated with the subsidies helping to make rooftop solar installations a financially attractive option for wealthier households that could afford the $25,000 (or more) to install the systems.

Florida lawmakers found a solution

To address this growing inequity and end the giveaway to wealthier homeowners, Republican and Democrat lawmakers came together in March, after years of work, and hammered out a hard won compromise: House Bill 741.  The bill sought to address the issue in a way that would slowly phase in the true costs of rooftop solar ownership and make it so that non-solar customers weren’t stuck footing the infrastructure bill.  Lawmakers knew that a failure to address the issue would continue to drive energy costs up for everyone.

On the flip side, and in the interest of fairness, lawmakers also took great care to make sure they didn’t pull the rug out from under those homeowners who had already plunked down the money to install rooftop solar on the promise of generous subsidies and net metering credits from selling their excess energy at the full retail price.

The bill basically locked in the full retail rate for existing rooftop solar customers for a full 20 years, which is the useful life of most solar systems. After that, any energy credits earned by selling excess solar power would be purchased by the utility at the lower wholesale rate to help share the costs of the infrastructure that rooftop solar customers were benefiting from.

The bill was fair and responsible. Lawmakers in both the Florida House and Senate took their time, deliberated over it, heard testimony from experts on all sides, and ultimately found a bipartisan compromise that they sent to Governor DeSantis.

On April 27th, DeSantis vetoed the compromise, effectively throwing all that work into the trash can. And nobody can figure out why.

The Governor’s explanation for the veto makes no sense

In his veto letter, DeSantis justified his decision by claiming the bill would increase the financial burden on Florida utility customers:

“Given that the United States is experiencing its worst inflation in 40 years and that consumers have seen steep increases in the price of gas and groceries, as well as escalating bills, the state of Florida should not contribute to the financial crunch that our citizens are experiencing.”

But what financial crunch would this bill create? And how? It’s a complete mystery. If anything, the bill would have eliminated, over 20 years, upward pressure on energy prices for 98.9 percent of Florida homeowners.

If the governor thought the bill would suddenly put rooftop solar owners in a financial crunch, he’s flat out wrong about that, too. And demonstrably so.

For starters, the bill has no impact on a single existing solar customer for two full decades. Twenty years! That means DeSantis could be re-elected in November, run for president in 2024, win, serve for four years, win reelection and serve out a second term, then make millions of dollars on the ex-president speaking circuit for another 10 years before the net metering reimbursement rate changes for those 90,000 existing solar customers. They were grandfathered in to protect them.

Twenty years is around the entire useful life for many solar systems anyway. Does DeSantis really expect the inflation crisis to last that long?

Meanwhile, over that same time span, the 7.9 million Florida households without rooftop solar will continue subsidizing those 90,000 existing rooftop solar customers by paying a higher rate to buy their excess electricity.

How could the governor have gotten this so wrong?

It’s possible that DeSantis, who claims he doesn’t listen to polls, was swayed by the intense lobbying efforts of the solar industry who swamped his office with nearly 17,000 phone calls, emails and letters. Undoubtedly having to face the actual costs of owning rooftop solar would put a crimp in their sales. But I tend to believe DeSantis is not easily swayed by lobbying efforts. It’s just as likely that one of his policy experts in the Executive Office of the Governor didn’t give him sound advice on the real long-term impact of the bill.

Regardless, the damage is done.

Mark these words: it may not matter much, but this column WILL appear in the opposition research books of potential DeSantis opponents in the 2024 presidential primary. That’s because, first, Florida’s legacy media fully expected him to sign the bill – as he should have – and they were stunned when he vetoed it. The legacy media loves solar simply because it is viewed as “free, environmentally friendly, renewable energy.” They will not dare criticize DeSantis for taking a position that props up this false trope.

But that also means that because this is one of the few columns written by a center-right media outlet that would dare criticize DeSantis and call one of his decisions into question, there won’t be many others out there calling attention to this travesty. The truth of the matter is that this veto raises serious questions about DeSantis’s views on energy policy, putting him more in line with his likely 2022 gubernatorial opponent Charlie Crist than any of the handful of conservatives who may challenge him for the presidential nomination in 2024.

It’s worth mentioning that it was then-Governor Charlie Crist’s 2007 Executive Order (EO 7-127) that directed the Florida Public Service Commission “to enable residential and commercial customers who generate electric power from onsite renewable technologies to benefit from limited net metering.”

DeSantis veto puts Florida on California’s horrifying energy path

Florida utility customers aren’t the only ones saddled with higher energy bills because they are forced to subsidize rooftop solar for their wealthier neighbors. While Floridians are expected to cough up roughy $1 billion in rooftop solar subsidies by 2025, that number is expected to triple by 2030.

California customers are already there, paying $1 billion in solar subsidies now, and that number is expected to grow quickly. Around 11 percent of a typical non-solar customer’s bill goes toward offsetting the costs of rooftop solar in California, which has contributed to them having – by far – the highest electric rates in the continental United States.

Surely DeSantis didn’t intend to model Florida’s energy policy after California. And yet, here we are.

The governor’s impulsiveness is a growing concern

By vetoing a law that was hard fought and ultimately passed with a bipartisan compromise, DeSantis flippantly tossed away years of work representing a slow but workable solution to a problem that is only going to get bigger with each passing year. Lawmakers on both sides were left scratching their heads.

The governor’s argument, as stated in the letter, appears to be that this was not the right time because of “inflation.” And yet the bill already contained a provision that it wouldn’t have any impact at all for the next three years, and zero impact for 20 years on existing rooftop solar system owners. As we pointed out before, his “not the right time” veto letter appears utterly ignorant of the effective dates in the bill.

Was DeSantis trying to win the support of pro-solar voters? That, too doesn’t add up, since the overwhelming majority of voters don’t have solar systems or can’t afford them.

At the moment, there is simply no explanation for DeSantis’s veto that would make strategic political or policy sense.

Instead, we can only lump it in with a handful of other recent policy positions that mark DeSantis as an impulsive leader who does what he wants, when he wants. From the monkey wrench he tossed into the redistricting process, to the sudden and legally dubious decision to strip Disney World of its special district status, DeSantis is a man guided by gut instincts.

Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they are wrong. DeSantis is merely human, after all.

This time, he got it wrong.

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    FPL will not be happy until it owns all solar panels in the State 🙁 . If the State of Florida taxed FPL’s solar panel ‘farms’ the same way FPL wants to ‘tax’ individuals’ rooftop systems ( hey , FPL is profiting from ‘our’’ Florida sunshine , right ?) , they would squeal like a stuck pig 😭. Governor DeSantis did the right thing for Florida by vetoing a bad bill aimed at discouraging all solar panels – except FPL’s ✅👍‼️

    Reply
  2. Marvin

    I want to compliment The Capitolist on writing a substantive debate article on solar energy in Florida. This is all too rare in media. I truly wish I saw more of it. Kudos.

    I am getting solar for my home this year and very happy about it. Gov. DeSantis did the right thing. The Capitolist article gets the solar argument wrong.

    The Capitolist (TC) wrongly states solar is for the wealthy. In fact practically any homeowner can get solar for about the price they are paying FPL. You do need a credit rating. That is normal for a mortgage, auto insurance, any loan covering capital equipment.

    TC ignores the fact that fossil fuels are cheap in the short run but expensive in the long run. Fossil fuels are limited, an economic vulnerability issue, a national security issue (as Europe has discovered) and a global climate and species extinction issue. These are huge issues to Florida as hurricanes intensify and ocean levels rise and for humanity at large. And, as tourists do not like to visit overly warm dead and acidic waters and dead reefs so it is a Florida tourism issue.

    TC ignores the fact that FPL already penalizes solar energy by removing 75% of your credits on an annual basis on New Year’s Day. Solar energy homes are already paying for FPL infrastructure.

    TC ignores the fact that home solar is forbidden in Florida from detaching from the grid. Solar owners are vilified for not paying for the grid (not true) but required to use it. This is unfair.

    TC ignores the fact that no accounting has been done to separate plant costs from grid costs. What is the real burden of grid infrastructure that solar energy produces should shoulder?

    TC ignores the fact that solar and other sustainable energy is in the long term interest of the people of our state and nation to develop, foster and implement as a long term energy solution.

    TC ignores the fact that federal tax credit subsidies are phasing out so solar will be getting more expensive anyway. The Florida bill was a one-two punch against solar development which is needed by the nation and the state.

    Reply
  3. Bruce S

    DeSantis is not impulsive. He does everything – EVERYTHING – for a reason. I would spend some time deriding your defense of this indefensible, indeed laughable, excuse for corporate welfare to Big Power, but I’ve done that before, and other commenters have chimed in nicely here.

    DeSantis has simply sent a message. Maybe Big Power didn’t contribute enough? Maybe Big Power’s people whispered something unkind behind the King’s back? Maybe Big Power failed to kiss the ring in some way? Or maybe it was salvo to all big corps to play by the King’s rules or suffer the consequences? Like Disney? Anyone is fair game if you cross the King. In any case, the message was sent loud and clear to the recipient, whoever it was. And in the end, the King can claim he is a man of the people who stands up for them against big corps. But the message was sent. Obey or else.

    Reply
    • John A

      Maybe the discussion should include allowing the storage of the solar energy rather than the forced purchase of excess daytime solar energy? I think the power companies would be happy with the status quo in that case.

      Reply

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