The Sunshine State: License Plate Slogan or License to Steal?

Stephen Smith | December 4, 2014 | Energy Policy, Solar

The Florida Public Service Commission (PSC)  is not even pretending to be objective anymore: they have become a wholly owned subsidiary of Florida Power & Light (FPL) and the other monopoly electric utilities in Florida!

Billions of customer dollars are at stake in decisions about what resources the power companies will use, and the PSC holds the power to make those decisions in a presumably fair and evenhanded manner. At the recent Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (FEECA) goal-setting conference, goals for energy efficiency and for the promotion of demand-side renewables like rooftop solar were being set. During the conference, PSC Chairman Art Graham decided to parrot a few utility solar talking points for a few moments while PSC staff stumbled to answer a question from a fellow commissioner. What came out (see video below) was a glimpse into the mind of a chairman who, while supposedly regulating the state’s big monopoly electric power companies in an impartial manner, foreshadowed his intention to further undermine the solar power market in Florida.

In the video, Chairman Graham states outright that the often-quoted fact that Florida has the third largest technical potential for rooftop solar is “not factual.” He gives his source for this claim as nothing less than the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), although he does not cite a specific report. He goes on to state that Florida is really “22nd in the nation for solar energy.” He also declares, without citing a source, that Florida is 5th for rainfall, and therefore Florida’s Sunshine State branding should be viewed as nothing more than a “license plate slogan.” Graham delivers these tidbits with a satisfied smile at having corrected the misleading “solar facts” that “you read in the paper all the time.”

Well, “facts” can be dangerous in the hands of someone who does not know how to apply them and is attempting to nefariously mislead the public.

So for Chairman Graham, let’s separate the facts from his misleading statements.

Misleading: Our review of his statements found that the most likely NREL report used for Chairman Graham’s misleading assertions is the July 2012 U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS Based Analysis.

In the report, NREL provides three technical potential estimates for solar photovoltaic (PV) generation by state, including the technical potential of rural utility-scale solar PV, urban utility-scale solar PV, and rooftop solar PV. It appears Graham selected rural utility-scale solar PV as his red herring for Florida’s lack of solar potential. Indeed, Florida is ranked 22nd among other states in this category, however it is important to note that the calculation is heavily weighted toward a given state’s total rural landmass, putting states like Alaska far ahead of Florida due to their geographic size. Surely Chairman Graham does not believe that Alaska is really a better solar market than Florida.

Fact: If Chairman Graham’s dubious fact-finding mission had only gone one page further in the report to the chart found on page 12, he would have seen that Florida is indeed ranked 3rd in the nation for total estimated technical potential for rooftop solar photovoltaics in the United States – a fact he proudly claims to have dispelled.

Source: NREL

Misleading: Mr. Graham’s statement that Florida is a leading state for rainfall seemed to imply that the state would have less sunshine than other states in our region.

Fact: Again looking to NREL’s data, the chart below shows Florida clearly has the best solar resource east of the Mississippi River.

So the question remains: Why would the Chairman of Florida’s PSC demonstrate such a lack of concern for the truth and make such misleading statements?

Sadly, the comments by the Chair and several of his fellow Commissioners all point to a well-orchestrated plan to further undermine the rooftop solar market for homes and businesses in Florida.

First, the PSC gutted energy efficiency opportunities for customers – even though efficiency can meet demand at a fraction of the cost of building new power plants and can help customers reduce energy use and save money on their bills.  The goals approved by the Commission are stunning rollbacks compared to the goals set by the PSC in 2009, ranging from 77% to 99% reductions in customer energy savings.

So, with those pesky “non-cost effective” efficiency programs out of the way, monopoly utilities have turned again to Chairman Graham’s commission to have them review the threat of non-utility solar power to the poor electric customers in Florida. The Commission, in ending the popular solar rebate program, plans to hold to a “workshop” next year on solar power policy. The discussion by Commissioners Bablis, Brise and Chairman Graham questioning the value of programs, such as net metering, that support customer-owned solar power, provides additional foreshadowing of the monopoly utility biases at work with this Commission in advance of the “workshop”.

The line between the PSC and the monopoly utilities they are charged with regulating has become increasingly blurred. The massive amount of money poured into political contributions and lobbying by the state’s monopoly utilities is clearly paying off at the PSC – to the detriment of Florida customers. The PSC is motivated to continue to do the bidding of the monopoly utilities who see a robust market in non-utility owned solar projects as a threat to their monopoly utility business model.

If Florida were to open its energy market to companies who could help finance solar power for commercial and residential consumers, the monopolies would finally have a little competition. For big power companies like FPL, this would represent a dangerous intrusion of the free market, like a camel’s nose under the monopoly tent they have enjoyed to date. Since FPL cleared over $1 billion in profits in 2014, is it any surprise that they would do everything in their power to preserve this largesse by capturing and influencing the very PSC regulators who grant them rate increases and the licenses to build multi-billion dollar power plants that guarantee 10-12% annual returns on these enormous investments?

Should we feel good about the leadership of Chairman Graham? He is supposed to lead his colleagues to impartially protect the electric power consumers’ interest against billion-dollar monopoly enterprises like FPL. The record demonstrates anything but consumer protection – just look again at the historic roll back of the state’s energy efficiency goals. Instead of protecting consumers, Chairman Graham has led the commission to side with the utilities. In doing this, the PSC is arguing that it is better for Florida’s monopoly electric utilities to build more power plants and enlarge their cash generating assets than to offer programs to residents and businesses that would help consumers use energy more efficiently and save money, decreasing utilities’ sales and the need for the new power plants.

Yes, it’s clear why Chairman Graham would assert that the Sunshine State is “just a license plate slogan.” See, if you are going to oversee a “fair” hearing on solar power in Florida, you want your billion dollar electric power monopoly handlers to know you have done your “research” and you have your “facts” straight.

 

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has 30 years of experience effecting change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as its executive…
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