Florida Utility Prematurely Yanked a Solar Rebate Program, Trade Group Claims

It's getting ugly between Florida's solar industry and the state's public utilities. All summer, both camps have been sniping at each other after Florida's power companies blocked solar industry advocates from sitting in on a policy skull session at the Florida Public Service Commission.

Now, the war of words is turning to actions. Solar advocates now claim this month Florida Power & Light yanked funding from a residential solar rebate program prematurely, with no warning or explanation.

For the past four years, FPL has administered rebates paid for by the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (FEECA). Under the program, residential homeowners who install solar water-heating systems are eligible for a $1,000 rebate from the state -- essentially a financial cherry atop a pitch for solar.

"It reduced a homeowner's expenditure, saving them money, and making it more accessible for people to have solar hot-water heaters," explains Wendy Parker Barsell, executive director of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association (FlaSEIA). Last October, around $1.1 million was placed in an account for the residential rebate. Applicants would have until September 30 of this year to submit rebate requests.

But according to FlaSEIA, on August 7, one of the group's members logged onto FPL's site for the rebate and saw a notice that the program would be ending -- at 5 p.m. that day. According to the website, there was still about $238,000 of rebate money available and $294,000 in an account for a similar program for commercial property. FlaSEIA scrambled to send out a notice to its members to take advantage of the rebates while they still were available. At 5 o'clock, both accounts read zero. Now the site reads, "Applications are no longer being accepted. All reservations have been issued."

Barsell says solar installers knew the funding would dry up -- but in September. The move to shut down the funding blindsided the industry.

"We have not been told. Nobody knew," she says. "[The rebate] is something that really helps sell it. When you don't get the $1,000 to offset the cost, it makes it less attractive for the homeowners. It was going to be gone, yes, but that's still a lot of units that could have been sold."

FPL, however, says that FlaSEIA's account is wrong. Says company spokesman Mark Bubriski: "I don't know how they wouldn't have known" the funding was set to expire. According to Bubriski, all the reservations for rebates made this year will be honored. The association knew the program was going to be done soon. "We haven't gotten any complaints from any contractors," Bubriski says. "Why didn't [FlaSIA] just give us a call?"

The radically different takes on what went down is pretty much indicative of the mood across the state right now, where the bitter feelings between utilities and solar contractors are growing.

"We want solar to advance in Florida," Barsell says. "It just seems like at every corner, we're getting beat up."

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