The Green Cove Springs City Council voted Tuesday night to reduce the amount it reimburses rooftop solar customers for excess power.
The Florida Legislature unanimously enacted a policy called net metering back in 2008, requiring utility companies to reimburse, or offset, solar customers for the excess energy they generate. The state’s investor-owned utilities were required to offer one-for-one net metering, meaning they had to reimburse solar customers at the same rate they charge other retail customers. Many municipal utilities, including Green Cove Springs, followed their lead.
The city of Green Cove Springs gets its power from the Florida Municipal Power Agency (FMPA), a wholesale power agency that’s owned by the state’s municipal electric utilities. The municipal utilities they serve, including the city of Green Cove Springs, provide electricity to 2.6 million Floridians, or about 12% of the state’s population.
FMPA’s CEO, Jacob Williams, is a former coal executive at the now bankrupt company Peabody Energy. In the past, Williams has advocated for charging electric customers fixed fees, according to the Energy and Policy Institute. The AARP and others have fought against fixed fees, arguing that they harm low-income customers. One of the benefits of a fixed fee is that they will make “net metering customers go away,” Williams said in a 2019 speech to member cities that at the time were reviewing utility rate structures.
FMPA has taken steps to reduce utility bills for low-and fixed-income customers they serve.
“FMPA’s mission is to provide low-cost, reliable and clean energy to all customers,” Ryan Dumas, public relations specialist at FMPA, wrote in an email to WJCT News. “We are committed and focused on doing that. As a result, our power costs are the lowest in 16 years, and we are adding affordable solar energy options that our members and customers are excited about.”
FMPA did not recommend the Green Cove Springs City Council take any specific action with regards to net metering.
However, the City Council’s appointed representative to FMPA’s Board of Directors and Executive Committee and Vice Chair of FMPA’s Policy Makers Liaisons Committee urged council members to adopt an “avoided cost” rate, which would have seen rooftop solar customers in the city get about 2¢ for every extra kWh of energy their systems produced.
“I would encourage you not to provide a bonus amount,” said Page. “While at this time it’s insignificant for those of us that are not solar customers, you can imagine if the system were 50/50 you'd be asking the other 50% of the customers to subsidize the solar customers that additional two cents that you're providing.”
Green Cove Springs currently has only 21 rooftop solar customers.
Many of those customers and advocates from around the state argue that reducing net metering rates to such low levels will disincentivize solar adoption and make it harder for the city and state to transition to 100% clean energy, which scientists say is necessary in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
President Joe Biden has called for the power sector to be carbon-free by 2035.
Page told the Green Cove Springs City Council that FMPA is on a “pretty good path” to half its 2005 level emissions by 2027, mainly by switching from coal to natural gas — another form of fossil fuel.
While natural gas produces about half of the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, its main ingredient, methane, is considered a climate “super pollutant.”
FMPA and many of its member cities are working to expand utility-scale solar capacity. Over the next few years, municipal electric utilities in Florida are expected to add nearly 1,000 megawatts of solar to their collective energy mix. That’s equivalent to about 15% of their current energy generation, according to FMPA.
“This amount of solar is equal to approximately 200,000 average rooftop solar systems,” FMPA’s Dumas wrote.
However, Page said getting to 100% clean energy would be “a real stretch.”
“That's where you see those discussions of going to solar and battery and gas as the absolute, final backup for what you need to have happen. I would just say, hopefully that doesn't come to pass. Solar and wind are not dense energy sources. They take up a lot of land to make that happen,” he said.
“People don't want to talk about the environmental impacts of all the mining that goes on to take care of rare earth materials and lithium and all of those things that go on, and the fossil fuels that have to be used to produce those products,” Page added. “No one is talking about what happens to the solar panels in 20 to 30 years or how those get recycled and how they're going to harm the environment.”
It is true that large solar power plants (i.e. utility-scale solar, not rooftop solar systems) can have a negative environmental impact in areas where they are constructed and some toxic materials and chemicals are used to make the photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight into electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
However, unlike coal, oil and natural gas, solar systems do not produce air pollution or climate change causing greenhouse gases during the energy generation process. There are emissions associated with the production, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal of solar systems, but as the country moves towards a clean energy economy, as President Biden and the Paris Climate Accord have called for, those emissions will be dramatically reduced.
In the end, the City Council settled on a compromise net metering rate which would allow the city to recover some of the costs associated with energy infrastructure and its maintenance.
“If you had batteries and were entirely off of the grid, I can see an argument for not making any contribution to the fixed costs. The fact that there are few battery systems in the city recommends to me that yes, there should be a contribution made to the fixed costs on any solar installation, as far as net metering,” said Mayor Ed Gaw.
“That generation of local power at your home does reduce some of the infrastructure costs, some of the wear and tear,” he went on to say. “But it’s still my contention that I believe this is an exceedingly fair compromise to where we found ourselves with the net metering policy.”
Council members voted 4-0 to reduce the city’s net metering rate to an “avoided cost plus” rate, which would essentially mean rooftop solar customers are paid 4¢ for each kWh of excess energy their systems generate. Mayor Gaw abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest having recently installed a rooftop solar system on his home.
Those changes will need to get approval from state regulators before going into effect.
The move to lower net metering rates in Green Cove Springs follows a similar cut by JEA, the city-owned utility in Jacksonville, which reduced its rate in 2018. The utility was sued over that policy change and a decision in the case could come any day.
Advocates worry Florida’s powerful investor-owned utilities are trying to follow suit and scale back the state’s rooftop solar policy or get rid of it all together.
Editor’s Note: This story originally attributed Robert Page’s comments to FMPA, suggesting the agency, through him, was urging the Green Cove Springs City Council to adopt the “avoided cost” rate. Page is not a spokesperson for FMPA. Rather, he is the city’s representative to FMPA’s Board of Directors and Executive Committee and was appointed by the Green Cove Springs City Council. He is also the Vice Chair of FMPA’s Policy Makers Liaisons Committee.