Bruce Ritchie: Despite popularity, utilities oppose solar rebate programs

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If you wonder whether utility solar rebate programs for homeowners and businesses were popular, look at how quickly the rebates were snapped up.

Florida Power & Light Co. paid $16.5 million in rebates between 2011 and 2013. Each time the program issued its maximum amount of reservations on the same day that applications opened, a utility spokeswoman said.

At Duke Energy Florida, $4.7 million in rebates in 2013 were claimed in less than 24 hours, a utility spokesman said.

But if you think those utilities would want to continue their popular rebate programs, you’re mistaken.

The state’s four largest utilities — FP&L, Duke, Tampa Electric Co. and Gulf Power Co. — are telling the Public Service Commission the rebates and other home energy conservation programs are unfair to customers who don’t participate.

Environmental groups are challenging the utilities’ proposed conservation goals. They will be considered by the Public Service Commission in hearings starting on Monday, July 21, in Tallahassee.

The PSC flip-flopped on the issue because of political pressure during the last review process between 2009 and 2011.

The PSC adopted tough goals in 2009 despite opposition from the utilities. That contributed to utilities and Associated Industries of Florida targeting commissioners appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist for removal.

A new commission in 2011 told FP&L and Progress Energy that because of concerns about the cost of conservation measures, they could just follow their previous conservation plans.

Now the four big utilities are back and they are proposing lower conservation goals. They also propose eliminating their solar rebate programs and say other energy conservation programs should not be increased or should be eliminated.

Those biggest utilities say customers overall shouldn’t be required to pay for programs that only some customers use. The NAACP has joined the utilities in making that case, saying that low-income customers don’t benefit.

FP&L spokeswoman Alys Daly noted that of the utility’s 4.7 million customers in Florida, only 926 participated in the program. She said many who signed up for rebates failed to follow through with solar installations.

“We want to do more solar,” Daly said. “But we want to do solar in a way that makes economic sense and is economical for all our customers.”

But the environmental groups contend that the utilities are using overly restrictive measures to evaluate solar rebates and other energy conservation programs. Walmart is backing the groups in calling for a continuation of the solar rebate programs.

In written testimony submitted by the Sierra Club, Tim Woolf, vice president of Synapse Energy Economics in Cambridge, Mass., says energy efficiency and conservation programs provide benefits that are shared by all customers.

“In particular, [energy conservation] can improve system reliability, reduce the need for new generation capacity, reduce planning risk, reduce transmission and distribution costs, reduce the costs of complying with environmental mandates and reduce reliance upon fossil fuels,” Woolf said.

“Efficiency also results in societal benefits such as local job growth and economic development, reduced environmental impacts and increased economic development,” he said.

Bruce Ritchie is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com