In 2010, just as the solar industry in the United States was taking off, Justin Vandenbroeck joined a small business as a solar panel installer, an entry level position.
“You don’t need to have a college degree to install solar panels, work in the trades or become an electrician,” said Vandenbroeck, who was 21 at the time and an engineering student at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “That’s how I got started and I worked my way up from $10 an hour to owning my company.”
Now the executive vice president of ESA Solar, Vandenbroeck said he worries that a bill passed last week by the state legislature might pull the plug on the solar industry in the Sunshine State.
“This legislation does not represent economic freedom, which is a big part of the governor’s agenda,” Vandenbroeck said, adding, “If there’s anything that the Ukraine-Russia crisis has taught us about energy, it’s that we need more domestically produced electricity, which is what our industry does as we produce electricity in the state of Florida.” The solar industry, he said, is urging the governor to veto this legislation.
The bill, widely viewed as anti-rooftop solar because it would drastically cut the financial incentives for installing solar panels, flew through Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate and House, with some Democratic lawmakers also supporting it. The legislation now awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to veto it or sign it into law.
Sponsored by state Sen. Jennifer Bradley and Rep. Lawrence McClure, both Republicans, the legislation aims to revise the state’s 2008 net metering policy, which allows homeowners with rooftop solar panels to exchange the excess power they generate for a one-to-one credit on their electricity bills. The bill would lower payout rates for solar customers and, among other things, allow utilities to bill them for fixed charges and minimum monthly fees.
The utility Florida Power & Light backed the legislation, and, according to an investigation by the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group, donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Bradley and McClure.
Florida Power & Light did not respond to multiple requests for comments.
Questions submitted to the offices of Bradley and McClure had not been responded to by the time of this article’s publication. But in introducing the bill before the senate committee on Jan. 11, Bradley said the aim of the 2008 net metering policy was to jumpstart the growth of rooftop solar by subsidizing residential customers. But the solar industry, she said, has now matured, and the price of solar panels has gone down substantially. “The conditions which existed when full retail net metering was created don’t exist today,” so the subsidies are no longer needed, Bradley said.
She called the net metering policy “regressive” and said that it benefited well-off solar customers at the expense of lower income non-solar customers. The bill, Bradley added, would ensure that rooftop solar customers pay the full cost of service, doing away with the subsidies, which increase the electricity bills of non-solar ratepayers.
If the legislation becomes law, homeowners and businesses that have already invested in rooftop solar would be kept at their current payout rate for 20 years. Prospective solar customers would have 18 months to install rooftop solar before the lowered payout rates kick in.
The legislation would make it far less appealing for Floridians to invest in rooftop solar because of the significantly diminished financial return on their investment.
In Florida, more than 100,000 homeowners have installed rooftop solar—owners of solar-fitted homes make up about 1 percent of all electric customers in the state—and they are currently paid almost the same rate for providing excess energy to the grid that utility companies charge their customers. Some customers generate enough power to lower their electric bills to near zero, which helps low-to-mid income consumers pay back the loans most homeowners rely on to finance the initial cost of installing rooftop solar, according to the industry experts.
Vandenbroeck, who is also president of Florida Solar Energy Industry Association, said the legislation would have a catastrophic impact on clean energy jobs, small businesses and the solar industry as a whole. “I did not expect this severe of a proposal,” he said.
Industry representatives and solar advocates say the legislation contradicts the Biden administration’s plan to invest in clean energy infrastructure to address the systemic inequities and the environmental injustice of past decades. Biden’s stalled $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act promises about $550 billion over 10 years for climate and clean energy, including incentives for renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.
“The solar industry in Florida has roughly 500 solar companies and the vast majority of them are small businesses,” Vandenbroeck said. “It employs about 9,000 direct workers and supports another 31,000 indirect jobs that are the backbone infrastructure of the solar industry.”
He said that net metering has enabled a lot of people and businesses to stabilize and control their electricity costs, while saving a bit of money every month.
Ben Miller, chief executive officer of Sun Harvest Energy, a residential solar company, said it takes 11 to 14 years on average for customers to pay off loans for installing rooftop solar systems at the current net metering rate. “This legislation would likely add another five to eight years to the existing payoff period, making it somewhere between 19 to 22 years,” he said. Miller added that the customers who were saving, say, $40 a month on their electricity bill, would probably save only $10 when the pay rate changes kicked in.
Heaven Campbell, Florida program director of Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit, said that no changes will be made to net metering rules until Jan. 1, 2024.
She noted that the bill moved through legislative committees at an alarming speed, without any substantial changes that would have saved the industry.
“This is clearly a very high priority for the largest influence on our legislature, which is Florida Power & Light,” she said. “And I would like to think that at some point lawmakers are going to put a value on their constituents over profits from a monopoly utility.” She added that Florida is unusual in that, “we are the Sunshine State and we have some of the fewest pro-solar laws.”
Campbell said that more and more people can afford to install solar because of the net metering policy, which helps them control soaring electric bills and get a fair credit for locally produced clean energy, shared directly with neighbors. “This legislation is punitive, slams the door on innovation and mocks families’ financial planning,” she said.
In recent weeks, Florida has witnessed widespread rallies opposing the legislation, with hundreds of protesters from across the state—including advocates, home and business owners and industry representatives—descending on the state capitol in Tallahassee.
Joshua Pearce, a professor at the department of electrical and computer engineering at Western University in Ontario, Canada, said that every study that was not financed by a utility has found that the net metering policy is beneficial for a wide variety of reasons. His research and studies by others, he said, have shown that the average solar-owning homeowner is actually subsidizing the grid.
Pearce noted that utilities make money by investing in electric infrastructure, and when homeowners install solar power generation and distribution systems, they make the investment instead of the utility. “So, they’re making an investment in electric infrastructure that benefits the grid and their neighbors,” Pearce said. “But that way the utilities are not making the money and so there is a conflict of interest.”
Pearce said 52,000 American lives a year could be saved by replacing coal with solar panels. “Unquestionably, a solar grid integrated system will produce lower carbon electricity than what we’re getting on any of the U.S. grids,” he said. “It’s good for the environment and good for long-term climate impact.”
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This is not the first time that politicians moved to dismantle net metering policy in Florida. Two years ago, McClure—the sponsor of the state House of Representatives’ version of the bill—sent a letter to Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) asking them to review the program, saying that rooftop solar was a threat to low to middle-income Floridians. The Public Service Commission decided not to act on McClure’s request.
Alissa Schafer, a research and communications specialist at the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group, said that McClure was basing his argument on a study that was carried out by “a utility front group.”
Schafer lamented that the anti-solar bill passed despite public opposition and testimony against the legislation. “It goes to show how important Senate seats are for utilities as strategic investment,” she said, “because senators are the ones that appoint members to the regulatory body that oversees the utilities, such as the Public Service Commission and the Office of Public Council in Florida.”
As of today, Florida Power & Light and its parent company, NextEra, have spent over $3 million in political contributions for the 2022 election cycle, according to state campaign reporting. The largest of four regulated utility companies operating in the state, Florida Power & Light is known to have provided millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign finances to both Republican and Democrat candidates, according to the Energy and Policy Institute.
Ben Miller, the Sun Harvest Energy CEO, said the utilities backing the anti-solar legislation have been spreading the false notion for years that only wealthy people buy solar. “There’s a large percentage of low to medium-income people who make less than $50,000 annually,” he said. “Less than 1 percent Floridians are rooftop solar customers, and to suggest that they are a burden on over 99 percent utility customers holds no water.”
By making rooftop solar unappealing for homeowners and businesses, Miller added, the legislation aims to get rid of the competition from the fledgling solar industry. Florida should learn from Nevada’s experience, he said, where the state’s decision to end their net metering policy in 2015 led to thousands of job losses, throwing the solar industry into disarray. In 2017, the Nevada legislature reinstated a net metering policy following the massive employment losses over the previous two years.
These are high-paying jobs and careers, and businesses that can go under if this bill passed, Miller said. “Solar is one of the fastest growing and job-creating industries in South Florida, with about $18.3 billion economic impact,” he added.
Meanwhile, Vandenbroeck and other industry representatives are engaging with Florida lawmakers in the hope of sensitizing them to the cost the solar industry will pay if the legislation goes through.
“We have been talking in good faith with the bill sponsor and with committee members to try to come up with a solution that is equitable, protects workers and enables continued economic growth,” he said. “We are sharing how wages in the solar industry are significantly higher than the average minimum wage in Florida. These are trade jobs and careers that can grow into long term careers. That’s a big focus.”
Vandenbroeck said that, as part of the construction sector, the solar industry continued to work on job sites despite the pandemic. “We kept building projects and putting money into the pockets of our workers. We hope the state will not turn its back on us.