TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Pointing to issues such as expanding renewable energy, state regulators Tuesday approved a $1.8 billion plan by Florida Power & Light to add 20 solar-power plants by the middle of next year.
The Florida Public Service Commission’s decision came after its staff recommended rejecting the utility’s “SolarTogether” program because of the way it is structured. The plan also drew opposition from the state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues.
But commissioners said the program, which involves adding a total of 1,490 megawatts of solar capacity, will expand renewable energy and reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity. FPL had backing from Walmart, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Vote Solar, after reaching an agreement with the retailer and the solar-advocacy groups last year.
“The commission approved the settlement agreement (between FPL, Walmart and the groups) because this unique solar program is in the public interest of the state of Florida and offers FPL customers the opportunity to advance renewable energy in Florida,” commission Chairman Gary Clark said in a prepared statement after the vote. “The new solar additions will serve to reduce the risk of higher fuel and emissions costs for all FPL ratepayers.”
The plan drew heavy scrutiny because it is structured differently than past projects. Under SolarTogether, customers will be able to voluntarily pay more on their electric bills to finance the solar projects and receive credits that are expected to result in them getting a “payback” in about seven years.
But opponents contended the program would have costs and financial risks for the vast majority of customers who would not participate. As an example, credits received by SolarTogether participants would come from money that all customers pay to cover power-plant fuel expenses.
“To be clear, citizens are in favor of solar and bona fide plans to improve Florida’s environmental condition; however, citizens do not favor forcing the vast majority of customers to fund vanity projects and take on all risks of those projects which primarily benefit only a few participants,” the Office of Public Counsel argued in a brief filed at the commission.
But commission members Julie Brown and Andrew Fay on Tuesday disputed that the plan would offer an “undue” preference to customers who participate in the program.
FPL has said the plan is responding to customers who want to participate in expanding the use of solar energy. The utility said SolarTogether would be the largest “community solar” program in the country
“This program represents significant forward progress for the solar landscape of not only Florida, but the entire United States,” Eric Silagy, president and chief executive officer of FPL, said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “For years, access to solar energy for many Floridians was not economical or easily accessible. Now, FPL SolarTogether will provide more of our customers access to the environmental and financial benefits of solar generation regardless of where they live or how much money they make while helping increase fuel diversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and launch Florida into a leadership position for solar energy.”
The plants will be built by mid-2021, with each having a 74.5-megawatt capacity. FPL has said all customers would see long-term savings from the plan because the solar plants would take the place of other types of more costly electric generation. The company estimates that $112 million of those savings would go to the general body of customers.
But the Office of Public Counsel contended that customers not participating in the program might not see a net financial benefit for 26 years. Also, critics questioned the need for the plants to meet electricity needs.
In arguing that the program should be rejected, commission staff members wrote that it would “authorize FPL to accelerate the construction of solar facilities and to add future solar facilities based upon the utility's marketing efforts and the desires of a select group of customers rather than adding generating units to satisfy projected reliability or economic needs for all customers.”
Brown, however, said Tuesday that SolarTogether has “ample systemwide benefits,” pointing to issues such as reduced dependence on fossil fuels and reduced emissions.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.