Florida's Largest Solar Project Is a Win for Utilities, Loss for Private Industry and Homeowners

Florida's Largest Solar Project Is a Win for Utilities, Loss for Private Industry and Homeowners
Stefan Thiesen via Wikimedia Commons

A cushy partnership between one of Florida's all-power public energy utilities and the U.S. military looks like it's moving forward. The state's Public Service Commission — which right now is pretty much an official rubber stamp for whatever project the utilities want — signed off recently on the deal, which will create a series of solar installations that will stand as the state's largest. This comes as influence from the utilities continues to shrink Florida private solar industry, even though the industry's supporters are pushing a ballot measure that could be a game changer. 

The military deal is being handled by Gulf Power, the utility powering eight counties across the Panhandle. Last week, the commission gave the green light on Gulf Power's proposal, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Under the proposal, the utilities will build facilities at three U.S. Air Force bases. Saufley Field in Pensacola will get a 50-megawatt rig; Holley Field, located in Navarre, will host a 40-megawatt field; and Fort Walton Beach's Eglin Air Force Base will have a 30-megawatt site. 

According to Renewable Energy Magazine, the three projects' combined 120 megawatts will be enough to power around 18,000 homes. The project is significant on a couple of fronts. First, not only are they among the largest in the state but they'll be the largest east of the Mississippi. Also, with the project, Gulf Power will outpace Florida Power & Light as the Sunshine State utility with the largest solar capacity. The Gulf Power projects are expected to open in 2016. 

But it's hard not to see this as part of a greater trend — utilities capitalizing on solar projects while at the same time trying to reduce the influence of private solar companies and homeowners interested in small-scale installation. As New Times has reported again and again, this goes back to an effort last year to keep private solar trade groups out of the Public Service Commission. The fact that Big Energy is now buying into solar projects is a definite plus, but by essentially monopolizing that market, a private industry is not getting the chance to spring up. 

There is a pretty venal reason this is all going down, as outlined in an April Miami Herald/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting piece. The report found that since 2010, Florida's utilities have contributed more than $12 million to Florida politicians. The report found that every member of the legislative leadership was the recipient of the utilities' largess. Florida Gov. Rick Scott's 2014 reelection campaign also received a big bundle from these companies — $1.1 million. 

You can see the results of this influence in the legislative session that's now closing up. A pair of Senate bills by St. Petersburg's Jeff Brandes that would have given tax savings to people who install solar never made it out of committee hearings this year

So when the system is jammed up with money, go outside the system. At least, that's the thinking behind a ballot initiative currently scooping up signatures all across the state. The effort wants to take an opportunity to expand home solar options directly to voters; back in March, supporters had grabbed enough signatures for the proposal's language to be reviewed by the state Supreme Court. 


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