Regulators scale back solar, energy efficiency programs

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State utility regulators agreed Tuesday to sunset a program that encourages Floridians to go solar but hasn't been widely used.

The Public Service Commission, in a separate 3-2 vote, also accepted a controversial staff recommendation that will lessen overall energy-efficiency goals for power companies.

"Those are not goals I want to adopt, those are not goals I want to vote for, and those are not goals I will vote for today," said Commissioner Lisa Edgar, who along with Commissioner Julie Brown, voted against the change in goals.

The expected change to the energy efficiency standards will not go as far as Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power Co. and JEA in Jacksonville had requested, but utility officials called the staff-backed changes "realistic."

Conservation groups were quick to declare the actions will cost Floridians jobs and money.

Commissioner Eduardo Balbis, in voting with the majority expressed disappointment that conservation groups, acting as interveners against the utility-backed reductions, only proposed the utilities be required to save 1 percent of their annual retail energy.

"I was hoping through this process that the interveners would provide additional testimony, an alternative or something that logically either added programs, deleted programs, or something that would get us to the goal that is before us today, and that did not happen," Balbis said.

Workshops will be held early next year to discuss new ways power companies can expand solar programs in the Sunshine State, as well as set new five-year conservation goals for the utilities.

Results of those workshops will impact customer costs.

Utility officials have argued that the economic advantage of conservation has waned as natural gas has grown in use. Also, government rules have resulted in more energy-efficient construction and in people using products such as lower-emitting light bulbs.

Commissioners had been advised by staff that Duke and FPL, which provide nearly 70 percent of the electricity in Florida, were not on track to meet the energy goals that had been in place since 2009. Now they should be.

Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in a statement after the meeting that the commission "ignored consumer interests."

"It will cost consumers more, because energy-savings opportunities are being ignored," Glickman said. "The PSC failed to use common sense and allowed the solar rebate program to expire with only an offer of a future conversation. This decision cost us money and jobs."

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy estimated customer energy savings would be reduced 87 percent to 99 percent due to the new efficiency goals.

"Instead of siding with customers, the PSC sided with monopoly utility shareholders, once again, by setting meager goals that promote the construction of new power plants -- which earn the companies a hefty profit, while leaving fewer opportunities for customers to lower energy use and save money on bills," Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said in a release.

The alliance also questioned the legality of the commission's action for failing to set new goals for promoting renewable energy.

In a separate vote, commissioners agreed to allow a solar rebate program that is little used to expire at the end of 2015.

Brown said Floridians have an appetite for solar, noting the rebates were quickly picked up, but the benefit needs to be widened.

But Balbis said despite people saying solar is cost-effective and viable, the only ones paying for solar are doing so "when they are receiving a significant amount of subsidizations."

Commissioner Ronald Brise said the average homeowner qualifying for a solar rebate lives in a home valued at more than $350,000 and had an annual household income that was more than $100,000.

"There is a large swath of our community that the way programs were designed could not benefit from the programs," Brise said. "However, I do believe there is a space for solar programs and the like within our portfolio within our state."

FPL's solar-installation program has been used by about 900 of its 4.7 million customers at a cost of $16.5 million over the past three years.

Last year, Duke spent $1.4 million for solar programs, which were approved for about 150 of its 1.7 million customers.

Duke and FPL intend to offer voluntary program where customers can agree to pay an additional fee that chips in for a solar facilities set up in more urban areas.

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski said such a volunteer program being implemented in six urban areas -- Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Cutler Bay, Doral and Davie -- would make sure one group isn't subsidizing others.