Duke Seeks Approval Of Major Solar Expansion

Originally published on July 7, 2020 6:00 am

Four months after Florida Power & Light received approval for a similar program, Duke Energy Florida is asking regulators to sign off on a $1 billion plan that would add 10 solar-power plants in the state.

Duke filed a proposal last week at the state Public Service Commission for what it has dubbed the “Clean Energy Connection” program, which would start operating two of the proposed plants in January 2022, four in January 2023 and four in January 2024.

The plan comes amid a broader push by major utilities in Florida to expand the use of solar energy, as solar has become more cost-efficient and as utilities look to reduce carbon emissions.

But the Duke plan and the FPL program approved in March are different from other solar projects because of their financial structures. Under the Duke program, customers would be able to voluntarily pay more on their electric bills to help finance the projects and would receive credits that would result in them getting a “payback” in about seven years.

Duke said the program would respond to customers who want to help boost renewable energy and might not want to have rooftop solar panels.

“(By) leveraging the utility’s buying power, the CEC (Clean Energy Connection) program allows customers to contribute to additional solar resources in Florida at a lower price than if they put up their own solar systems,” Lon Huber, vice president of rate design and strategic solutions for Duke Energy, said in written testimony included in last week’s filing. “Second, the CEC program allows customers who cannot or do not want to put solar on their premise to participate in a solar energy program.”

The plan calls for building 10 74.9-megawatt solar plants, with each costing slightly more than $100 million. The filing said Duke has not chosen sites for the plants.

The Public Service Commission in March approved FPL’s “SolarTogether” program, which is similar to the Duke proposal but is expected to add 20 solar plants. The SolarTogether proposal, however, drew opposition from the state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues.

That opposition stemmed, at least in part, from concerns that the voluntary program would lead to costs and financial risks for the vast majority of FPL customers who would not participate. But the commission approved the FPL program, pointing to benefits such as reduced emissions and reduced dependence on fossil fuels to generate electricity.

In its proposal , Duke pointed to such benefits and said the program would ultimately benefit all customers. In part, that is because more solar power would lessen the need to generate power using fuel such as natural gas. Fuel costs are passed through to customers on their monthly bills.

Before submitting the proposal, Duke reached agreement with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Vote Solar and Walmart to back the program --- a move that FPL also made. At least some large commercial, industrial and government users are expected to take part in the Duke program.

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