When Paul Abbott first moved to South Florida, he, like many transplants, had to learn how to fight the heat.
His first, 600 square-foot apartment in West Palm Beach was poorly insulated and got oppressively hot.
“There was no insulation, it was just concrete between me and the blazing sun,” he remembered. “I had two window units on 24/7, just constantly, and I couldn’t get the temperature below 80.”
That set him back about $100 a month in electricity bills, and the amount of fossil fuels he had to burn just to keep the place tolerable also worried him.
Paul, an electrical engineer, went to his local Home Depot for some reflective white roof paint to take matters into his own hands.
As his then-girlfriend, now-wife Emily recalls it, “He was like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t tell my landlord, I went up to my roof and painted it white, just to reduce the heat.’”
A lot has changed for the Abbotts since Paul’s first guerrilla energy-saving project in Florida. They got married. They recently had a son, Luke. And they moved from West Palm Beach to a small house in the College Park neighborhood of Lake Worth Beach.
Their interest in the environment and energy-saving hasn’t waned, though — nor has their tendency to look for rooftop solutions.
Earlier this year, the Abbotts joined a solar co-op. It gathered people interested in generating their own solar power to help them navigate choosing solar panels and get their systems up and running.
The Abbotts, like the rest of Lake Worth Beach, get their power — and all their other utilities — from Lake Worth Beach Utilities, Palm Beach County’s only city-run utility. Most of the other members of their co-op were working with Florida Power and Light.
“Everything was like FP&L, FP&L, FP&L,” Emily says of the first co-op information session. “And I literally was like ‘Hi, we’re city of Lake Worth, what do we do?’”
They were expecting hiccups working with the municipal utility, but everything seemed to be moving forward — the installer came out and measured their roof, they filled out their paperwork, they put down a $4,000 down payment and signed their contract at the end of March.
“And we were like, that’s weird, we haven’t heard from the installer for a little while,” Emily recalled.
It turned out that the Abbotts’ timing couldn’t have been worse. In April, the city of Lake Worth began a four-month moratorium on any new customer-generated rooftop solar while it sorted out a handful of problems.
For the Abbotts, that meant the solar panels that had been prepped for their house were sitting in a warehouse for four months, while they kept pulling all their power from the grid during some of the hottest months of the year.
For the city of Lake Worth Beach, that meant trying to rapidly fix three major problems.
First, under Florida law, all utilities are required to have interconnection agreements with their rooftop solar customers. Those essentially lay out how the customer’s system interacts with the power company — how big the system can be, what kinds of certifications and tests are needed, what customers can expect from the utility, and so on.
Lake Worth Beach didn’t have those before the moratorium, even though they’re legally required. The city had more than 80 customers generating their own solar power before it realized that was a problem.
Joel Rutsky, revenue protection manager for Lake Worth Beach Utilities, says the agreements got lost in a shuffle. When Lake Worth Beach’s first rooftop solar systems started plugging into the grid in 2009, the city was purchasing its power through the Florida Municipal Power Association, a coalition of other city-run utilities. FMPA handled net metering for the city. When Lake Worth Beach moved its rooftop solar in-house, it didn’t keep up with those agreements.
“To be honest, I don’t think anyone realized we were mandated to have those interconnection agreements,” Rutsky said.
The lack of agreements also created a logistical problem. The properties within the city of Lake Worth Beach that get their power from Lake Worth Beach Utilities have to file all their construction and renovation permitting with the city. But the utility also has some customers outside city limits.
“The ones that are out in the county and in Palm Springs that we serve electric to, we don't know about ahead of time because it doesn't go through our permitting,” Rutsky said.
In fact, the utility’s biggest solar-generating customer is a massive self-storage facility in Palm Springs, owned by Extra Space. It produces roughly 220 kilowatt hours of solar electricity each month — some 25 times the size of the Abbotts’ planned rooftop system.
Extra Space spokeswoman McKall Morris said the company did all the paperwork and notified the proper authorities before installing its solar panels in Palm Springs a little more than two years ago.
Still, Rutsky said the arrival of Extra Space’s system, and a couple other larger systems, is part of what prompted the city to reexamine its solar policy and realize the interconnection agreements were missing.
The second issue the city had to nail down was how much people generating their own solar power are paid for the extra power they feed into the grid, under a process called net metering.
Most electric customers use power, they don’t produce it. So the only thing their meter tracks is how much electricity they use.
When it’s cloudy, solar customers operate in the same way, but when the sun’s out, they’re generating power — sometimes more than they can use. This, they can sell to the utility. Their meters, in turn, need to keep track of the net power usage — how much they took from the power company minus what they’ve put in.
Before the moratorium, solar customers settled up with the utility at the end of each month. If, over the course of that month, they produced more power than they used, they would get a credit for each kilowatt hour they overproduced at the retail rate – that is, how much Lake Worth Beach customers would have paid for it.
Lake Worth Beach Utilities buys most of its power from other power companies, solar farms or plants at a wholesale rate — roughly, three cents per kilowatt hour — and sells it to customers at a retail rate of about 10 cents. When it bought solar users’ power at 10 cents, it was spending way more on that power than it would on any of its other power sources.
“The city has said that it doesn't make sense that we are going to pay you 10 cents a kilowatt hour and then flip it to your neighbor when we can buy it for three cents,” Rutsky said. “We don't think it's fair, and neither do the other 26,900 customers think it's fair, that they should subsidize the people that have net metering.”
At the same time, though, rooftop solar customers wanted to keep that one-to-one ratio of what they paid and what they were paid for their systems to remain financially feasible.
“We don’t really want to be in the business of a utility, generating electricity for other people — we want to offset our own usage,” Paul Abbott said. “But it still has to make financial sense.”
During the four-month moratorium, the city landed on a net metering compromise that brought them pretty much in line with power companies like FPL.
Solar users would now settle up on power at the end of the year, instead of monthly. And if they produced extra power in January, February and other cooler, still-sunny months where they didn’t need to use as much power to keep the house cool, they could carry those extra credits over as kilowatt hour — not three cents or 10 cents — and apply it to the months within that year where they had to use a lot of power to keep their air conditioning running.
It allowed solar users to keep that one-to-one ratio, at least until the end-of-year payout, and kept the utility from having to shell out 7 cents more for customer-generated solar than it does for other power sources.
It also required solar customers to pay a minimum bill if they don’t spend a certain amount on utilities, though they had previously been exempt from minimum billing. Solar customers, or even snowbirds running just what’s needed to keep their places mold-free in the off-season, will now all have to pay $31.40 each month that they don’t spend at least that much in services, to help pay for maintenance and improvements to the city’s grid.
The changes made during the moratorium solved the Abbotts’ problems — for the most part. They got their solar panels up and producing in October.
That was a huge financial relief. People who get their rooftop solar up and running in 2019 get a federal tax rebate of 30 percent of the cost of their system. Next year, that goes down to 27 percent – which is a bit of a difference when you’re talking about $20,000 dollar systems. The Abbotts had worried losing four months to the moratorium might bump them into next year.
“The unfortunate thing is we missed out on all those long summer days where we could have 8, 9, 10 hours of sunlight,” Emily Abbott said.
Solar fans think the changed payment structure was a solution in search of a problem. Angela DeMonbreun oversees solar co-ops like the one the Abbotts joined in Florida and several other states. For one thing, she said, solar users are such a small portion of the utility’s total customers. Roughly 100 out of 30,000, or 0.2 percent, of Lake Worth Beach Utilities customers generate their own solar power — “literally zero” when it’s rounded, as City Commissioner Omari Hardy pointed out during one heated public meeting during the moratorium. He, and others, questioned during that meeting why the city was stalling solar projects for several months in order to rewrite policy for such a small group of customers.
DeMonbreun said everyone in their latest co-op who ran afoul of the Lake Worth Beach moratorium did get their systems up and running — like the Abbotts — so it didn’t overly discourage people who were already in the process.
She’s more worried about a chilling effect going forward, especially among the solar installers who had panels sitting in their warehouses for months, or friends of0 people like the Abbotts who saw how frustrating their process was.
“Generally when we see this type of press, and fixed charges and interconnection agreement shenanigans, then you have industry not wanting to service those areas,” DeMonbreun said. “I think moving forward, there may be less people that may go solar.”
How big is too big?
There was a third problem Lake Worth Beach Utilities had to grapple with during its moratorium — the size of rooftop solar systems. It was made even more complicated when city staff dug up a seven-year-old ordinance that capped all solar power systems at 10 kilowatt hours — roughly the size of most single-family home systems, but just a small fraction of what the Extra Space Storage facility produces.
Because the city itself didn’t even know about the 10 kilowatt cap until a few months ago, it’s not penalizing systems that are over that limit — Extra Space and the other large systems are grandfathered in, as are any bigger users who had filed the proper paperwork to the city before the moratorium began. The city is, however, capping all systems at 10 kilowatts moving forward.
It’s also limiting its overall customer-generated solar capacity to 1.5 percent of the city’s total power capacity, which has particularly frustrated solar advocates.
Lake Worth Beach Utilities director Ed Liberty said the city isn’t anti-solar. He points to investments the city has made in purchasing industrial-scale solar power for its own system, as well as about a decade of utility customers putting solar panels on their roofs with the city’s blessing.
He said the limits, both of individual systems and the overall cap on customer-generated solar, reflect a safety concern. Big power companies like FPL might lose power in huge pockets during a hurricane, as happened during Hurricanes Michael and Irma, among others. In both those cases, though, the lights stayed on in other parts of the state. In Lake Worth Beach, utility director Ed Liberty says their system is small enough that it can black out entirely.
“When we’re starting the city up from a blackout, if you have voltage swings and load swings on circuits because of power sources that you can't control, that creates a problem,” he said.
Rooftop solar production fluctuates if clouds comes in, and as the sun moves. That means variations from minute to minute of how much power those systems are pouring back into the grid. Liberty said that adds unknown variables to a system that’s scrambling to recover from a blackout.
During that kind of total outage, Liberty said the city switches off its own solar power unit to avoid those kinds of swings. It can’t do that for customer-owned solar power systems, so the city has elected to keep the amount of rooftop solar small.
“It would not be a good idea to allow customer connected solar to become an even bigger problem,” he said. “We have no control at all over individual customer owned solar projects. We know where they are, we know where they're connected, but there's no way that we could get on the road and disconnect hundreds of solar customers at any one time.”
That hasn’t settled solar advocates’ frustrations with how the city is handling solar.
DeMonbreun, of the solar co-op, says more solar power makes the grid more resilient, as well as more environmentally friendly.
“I always look at these things like, ‘Why don’t you embrace solar?’” she said. “You could actually utilize rooftop solar homeowners, as well as utility-scale solar farms, to help reinforce that grid, and reinforce your infrastructure.”
DeMonbreun’s concerns were echoed by Lake Worth Beach residents who came to several city commission and utility meetings held during the moratorium to hash out the utility’s changes. People questioned the 1.5 percent cap, and some worried that a 10 kilowatt hour limit would box out any solar projects bigger than one of Lake Worth Beach’s signature cottages, around 2,000 square feet or smaller.
Liberty said the 10 kilowatt hour system cap might not be permanent. The city is working on expanding and strengthening its overall grid over the next several years, which could make total blackouts less likely, and therefore open the door for more customer-generated solar.
“I do expect that at some point in the future [the 10 kilowatt hour cap] may come up again, and we'll address it,” he said.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Angela DeMonbreun's name.