Recent news coverage of the proposed NextEra-Hawaiian Electric merger has revealed a fact that is disturbing to many Hawai`i residents concerned about NextEra’s commitment to distributed generation, which is manifested most frequently in the form of rooftop solar panels.
As noted by reporter Kathryn Mykleseth in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for example, “There are approximately 3,000 [Florida Power & Light] customers with rooftop solar among the utility’s 4.8 million customers. Hawaiian Electric – which includes Hawaiian Electric Co. on O`ahu, Hawai`i Electric Light Co. on Hawai`i island, and Maui Electric Light – has approved almost 70,000 rooftop solar systems with a total of only 450,000 customers.” Florida Power & Light, or FPL, is a subsidiary of NextEra.
One reason for the low solar penetration is the fact that Florida is one of just four states in the nation where net metering is still not allowed and citizens are required to purchase electricity from a utility.
To remedy this, a grassroots group called Floridians for Solar Choice launched a petition drive in support of a state constitutional amendment that would reduce “barriers to supplying local solar electricity.”
Last spring, the Florida attorney general, Pam Bondi, asked the Florida Supreme Court to advise on the validity of the initiative petition before placing it on the ballot in 2016. At that time, more than 88,000 signatures had been collected; should the Supreme Court approve the petition, the group would need to get more than 683,000 signatures.
On June 10, a coalition of the state’s largest utilities, led by FPL, filed a brief with the court opposing the petition.
“The initiative … is contrary to Florida’s comprehensively regulated system for the provision of safe, efficient electric power and provides constitutionally mandated economic protection for one component of the solar industry at the expense of the state’s electric power providers and their non-solar customers,” the brief states. Also, it goes on to say, the initiative “interferes with state and local protections and functions and disrupts funding of state and local activities. Finally, it forces voters to accept consequences they might not otherwise wish to accept in order to obtain the promised benefits of local solar providers.”
“Ironically,” the brief continues, “it will obstruct development of the state’s energy policy, including the promotion of solar power. Comprehensive growth and emergency energy policies will have to be developed around what could be a significant number of new, free-lance providers.”
Bondi, the attorney general, has also briefed the court in opposition to the measure. The Supreme Court is expected to begin hearing arguments in early September.
Then in mid-July, a new group popped up on the Florida scene: Consumers for Smart Solar, which is proposing what it says is a more “consumer-friendly” ballot question. Instead of requiring net metering, the CSS proposed language basically allows customers to install solar systems for their own use: “This amendment establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall retain the ability to protect consumer rights and public health and safety, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”
William Pentland, a contributor to Forbes magazine, commented on the sudden rise of CSS. “Florida’s investor-owned utilities are anything but keen on the [Floridians for Solar Choice’s] ballot proposal. This may explain why some people suspected that Florida Power & Light, a wholly owned subsidiary of NextEra Energy and the state’s largest utility, may be backing Consumers for Smart Solar, a political action committee that appeared out of the blue.” Pentland notes that the organization was registered with the Florida Department of State on July 8, and “In less than a week, CSS launched a snazzy new website loaded with professionally produced multimedia content, recruited a slate of high-profile supporters and staged a major news conference kicking off its statewide ballot initiative.”
Pentland went on to note that his suspicions about links between CSS and FPL “deepened when I discovered that CSS is located at the same address as another elusive PAC called ‘Take Back Our Power,’ which was funded almost exclusively by FPL as part of a bitter political battle between the utility and the city of South Daytona.” In 2011, he writes, the city had proposed setting up a municipal utility instead of renewing its franchise agreement with FPL.
“FPL contributed almost $400,000 to Take Back Our Power, including a significant amount of so-called ‘in-kind contributions,” Pentland writes. Both TBOP and CSS shared the address in Tallahassee that is the headquarters of Carroll & Company, an accounting firm providing campaign finance compliance services. “Carroll & Company served as the campaign treasurer for Take Back Our Power. It is playing the same role for CSS,” Pentland noted.
Blogger John Howell of The Daily Fray asked FPL about its contributions to the new group. FPL spokeswoman Alys Daly responded, Howell reported, in an email. “We have appreciated the opportunity to offer technical and policy assistance to Consumers for Smart Solar in the development of their amendment,” Howell quoted her as stating. “We have not yet made a donation, but we certainly intend to join others in supporting the effort.”
Floridians for Solar Choice, which has been in existence for more than a year, has reported receiving donations of nearly $600,000, much of which was from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
As of press time, Consumers for Smart Solar had not filed any report on contributions with the state’s Division of Elections.
Meanwhile, in Hawai`i
The Division of Consumer Advocacy has taken note of the involvement of FPL in the brief filed with the Florida Supreme Court on the matter of the sufficiency of the Floridians’ for Solar Choice petition.
In a filing with the state Public Utilities Commission on July 17, the consumer advocate notes that Hawaiian Electric president Alan Oshima had testified that “NextEra Energy shares [Hawaiian Electric’s] vision of …integrating more rooftop solar energy.
But, the consumer advocate goes on to state, “NextEra Energy’s principal utility subsidiary, Florida Power & Light Company, has joined other Florida utilities in opposition to a Florida initiative petition sponsored by Floridians for Solar Choice…”
Do the “facts and arguments presented in the referenced Brief represent the position of Florida Power & Light Company?” NextEra and Hawaiian Electric were asked. Also, the consumer advocate asked NextEra to “[e]xplain whether the facts and arguments presented in the referenced Brief represent the position of NextEra Energy, Inc., on the issues addressed therein within Florida and more broadly throughout the United States.”
No response had been filed by the time Environment Hawai`i went to press.
— Patricia Tummons
Volume 25, Number 2 August 2015