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Hotly debated solar energy rules changes move forward in Legislature

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SOLARCITY
/
AP

Florida lawmakers continued to move forward Monday with key changes in rules for rooftop solar energy, drawing heavy opposition from the solar industry and environmental groups.

But as the House State Administration & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee approved the bill (HB 741), sponsor Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, said he is working on a proposed amendment to more gradually make the changes. He described that approach as taking a “glide path.”

“One could argue it (the bill) is too heavy-handed and too swift and doesn’t give rooftop solar the ability to adjust,” McClure said. “So I look forward to presenting that amendment.”

The issue, which has sparked a noisy fight throughout this year’s legislative session, deals with an otherwise wonky concept known as net metering. That involves the interplay between utilities and rooftop solar owners, including credits that utilities provide for electricity generated by rooftop solar systems.

McClure and other supporters of the bill contend that the state’s current rules result in people without rooftop solar systems subsidizing rooftop-solar owners. That argument stems, at least in part, because utilities continue to face overall costs of operating the electrical grid. Among the supporters of the bill are Florida Power & Light, which has run television ads calling for changes in net metering.

While McClure said his amendment will phase in proposed changes over a longer period of time, the bill will continue to be aimed at eliminating subsidies.

“The bottom line is rooftop solar, I believe, will be a part of our long-term solutions, but it cannot ride on the backs of the other ratepayers indefinitely,” McClure said.

But rooftop solar installation businesses argue the bill — at least before McClure proposes the amendment — would severely damage the industry. Also, opponents of the bill dispute that costs are being shifted to people who do not have rooftop solar systems.

“It’s predicated on the myth that solar customers in Florida right now are raising bills on (non-solar) Florida customers, and I can tell you that’s nonsense,” said George Cavros, an attorney for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “It’s utter nonsense.”

Rep. Yvonne Hinson, a Gainesville Democrat who voted against the bill, said lawmakers “can ill afford to guess at this” and should take a deeper look at whether costs are being shifted.

“At this point, I think we need a study so we can know what the heck we are talking about,” Hinson said.

The Florida Public Service Commission in 2008 approved a net-metering rule, and the bill would direct the commission to make revisions, including ensuring that “public utility customers who own or lease renewable generation pay the full cost of electric service and are not cross-subsidized by the public utility’s general body of ratepayers.”

People who own rooftop solar systems are required to hook up to utility systems and are able to sell excess electricity and receive bill credits in return. Under the 2008 rule, monthly credits are provided at utilities’ retail rates. An important part of the bill would change that to providing the credits at what are known as “full avoided cost” rates, which could reduce the amounts going to rooftop solar owners.

As the rooftop solar industry has grown in recent years, similar debates have played out in other states. The industry contends it would be hurt by the potential Florida changes because homeowners would be less likely to see financial advantages of installing systems — a concern that a House staff analysis acknowledged.

“The bill may have an indeterminate negative impact on the revenues of private businesses that install customer-owned renewable generation systems, since customers may not purchase these systems if they cannot recoup as much of the costs through the new net metering rate design,” the analysis said.

McClure earlier made a change in the bill to allow people who have rooftop solar systems by the end of this year to keep the current net-metering rate design for 20 years. That would help people who have financed the systems.

While he did not go into extensive detail Monday, McClure indicated the upcoming amendment would phase in over a series of years the changes in rates used to determine credits. The House panel voted 9-6 along almost straight party lines to approve the bill, with Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, joining Democrats in opposing it.

The bill needs approval from the House Commerce Committee before it could go to the full House. The Senate version (SB 1024) needs approval from the Rules Committee before it could go to the full Senate.