It's summer, ugh, that time of year when the Florida sun seems like a sweaty, wet mattress you're constantly hiking up three flights of stairs. So if there's a time to think seriously about solar power, it's now. Despite the constant rays, Florida's solar industry is still struggling to get off the ground -- and it might have just been hit with a devastating blow.
Over the past month, the, um, Sunshine State's power companies have ganged up against the group representing rooftop solar rigs on homes and businesses; the companies are using the Alliance for Solar Choice's (TASC) bid to get in on some Tallahassee policy talks as a Waterloo moment. And although the solar group is fighting back, the utilities seem intent on bringing out the big guns.
Under state law, the Florida Public Service Commission is required every so often to hold policy meetings to determine energy conservation and efficiency goals. This is to include conversations on solar power.
On June 10, TASC submitted a petition to intervene on the proceedings -- essentially a request to sit in on the Public Service Commission meetings while the talks are going on and comment on the presentations.
This isn't the first time solar people been involved in the discussions, says Yann Brandt, cofounder of the Demeter Power Group, a South Florida-based rooftop company. In 2008, the little guys intervened, And those talks eventually created a good metering policy and access to the grid for rooftop solar -- moves that laid the groundwork for a good solar industry in the state.
"We would travel up to Tallahassee and sit in the Public Service Commission chambers with staff, the utilities representatives, the lawyers, the solar advocates -- and it really worked," Brandt says. The utilities had no problem with TASC sitting in on those discussions, in part because solar was still an expensive pipe dream. But since then, solar has seen a 75 percent price reduction, Brandt says, making it a viable consumer option. The 2014 round of FEECA talks could set out new policy to really jump-start the industry.
But when TASC filed on June 10, it was quickly swatted away by the utilities. All together -- Duke Energy Florida, Florida Power & Light Company, Gulf Power Company, JEA, and Tampa Electric Company -- filed a joint response opposing TASC's appearance. Their response claimed that the solar trade group was not an organization of mom-and-pop businesses but wholesale solar suppliers and that the FEECA talks were not "intended to promote businesses, to protect business markets, or to protect the competitive economic interests of the solar industry."
Not so, says Brandt.
"All of the sudden, the utilities no longer want the solar industry in the room because they want to proactively make sure that solar isn't part of the energy mix in Florida," he says. "They've been pretty open about the only solar they want in the state is large solar farms, not on people's rooftops and their businesses."
On June 18, TASC filed another motion correcting the mischaracterizations of the group and purposes for getting in on the FEECA discussions. Two days later, the utilities fired back -- which in business law is the equivalent of rolling up your sleeves and smashing a beer bottle against the bar, 'cause it's go-time.
"At the end of the day, we recognize that the utilities are monopolies and they have to protect their shareholders, but that doesn't mean we can't have a discussion about the things we don't agree on and find common ground," Brandt says. "It's not that you want to make everyone put solar on their house, but we want to give people a choice."
In the end, it's the competition an alive-and-kicking solar industry might give the utilities that has them hauling out the legal big guns, Brandt says. Dumping more fuel on the fire, on late Wednesday, TASC's petition to intervene was denied by the commission -- leaving the next move a mystery.
But the losers here are undoubtedly us, sweating away under the Florida sun with a possibly diminishing opportunity to harness the rays for rooftop power. The utilities' aggressive flanking moves against TASC show they're not going to let the industry spring up without a fight. "They can say what they want, but two objections within a five-day period for five conglomerate corporations is incredibly fast-paced work," Brandt points out.
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