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Changes are in the works for Florida's rooftop solar industry

Solar panels gather sunlight at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center in Merritt Island, FL.
John Raoux
Solar panels gather sunlight at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center in Merritt Island, FL.

A much-debated plan to change the rules for rooftop solar in Florida passed the House this week. The changes will potentially make solar more expensive for future users.

The legislation focuses on something called net metering, which involves rooftop solar owners receiving credits on their monthly bill for the extra power they generate that goes into the electric grid.

Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Orange Park, sponsors the Senate bill (SB 1024). She says it doesn’t make sense that utilities are required to purchase the extra energy at the full retail rate. “In fact, if a utility were to go out and purchase solar from a large solar farm, it would be four times cheaper than rooftop solar,” said Bradley.

“The math doesn't work in our current system,” said Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola. He joins critics of the current net metering rules who say those who don’t have rooftop solar pay more than those who do. That’s because solar users are required to connect to the utility-run power grid, enabling them to keep the lights on when their systems fail. But their utility bills are reduced as they produce their own power and receive credits for the extra power they put into the grid.

“Every single person, commercial entity, or resident gets to use our grid like a free battery if they have solar panels on their roof,” Andrade said in debate on the House floor.

Less than one percent of Florida’s utility customers have rooftop solar, but former Republican state lawmaker and lawyer John Grant says that number will likely increase. "This subsidy was put in place 14 years ago for the purpose of helping to jumpstart the industry, and it's been very, very successful," said Grant, addressing the Senate Rules Committee in support of the bill on behalf of the utility-backed advocacy group Seniors Across America. He says as solar use grows, so too will the cost shift to non-users. “People who have solar are going to be compensated at the expense of those who don't have solar and have to pay an electric bill.”

“It offers the glide path of a brick,” said Dave Cullen with Sierra Club Florida. He joins opponents who say the proposed changes would greatly reduce the financial incentive to buy solar panels, thereby hurting the rooftop solar industry. "The claim is that this bill makes costs equitable. What it'll do is put rooftop solar out of reach for everyone except Florida's wealthiest,” Cullen told the committee.

Rooftop solar is expensive to install and out of the price point for many low-income households, leaving them dependent on the traditional grid. Cullen says families that could afford to buy solar panels may miss out on the credits under this legislation.

Others want a study first to see the economic value of rooftop solar and the financial impact of net metering.

“A reasonable process would have experts at the table working with us,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who voted against the bill in committee, “would have our great public universities engaged in the conversation, having our PhD professors who said ‘I've looked around the country; here is the right way to go do this.’ That hasn't been the case today.”

Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, sponsors the House version (HB 741). He says the changes would be phased in, leaving the credits as-is for the first 18 months. "After that, for the next four years, we kind of slowly reduce the excess credit payments to allow the industry to recalibrate.”

Anyone using rooftop solar before the end of 2023 would be grandfathered in and would keep receiving credits at the full retail rate.

The legislation was approved in the House, and the Senate version is ready for floor debate. Both versions have undergone a series of changes, and the chambers will have to agree on one of them before it gets to the governor.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Gina Jordan reports from Tallahassee for WUSF and WLRN about how state policy affects your life.