Community Solar Comes to the Sunshine State in a Big Way, Finally

The largest planned community solar program in the country,
created by utility Florida Power & Light, cleared a hurdle this
month when the utility reached a settlement agreement with groups
who had raised concerns about its structure.

Solar accessibility advocates and retail giant Walmart now stand
behind the 1.5-gigawatt program, after initially expressing
concerns about access for low-income customers, costs and the
distribution of the program’s financial benefits.

The program, called SolarTogether, still needs final approval
from state regulators, but Florida Power & Light told Greentech
Media it hopes to launch the program in the first quarter of
2020.

Among community solar programs as they’ve been defined,
FP&L’s design is a bit novel. Under the current structure, 75
percent of the program’s capacity will go to commercial and
industrial or governmental customers, with the remaining 372.5
megawatts left for residential and small businesses. FP&L also
designed an escalating bill credit, meaning it will take several
years for the subscription benefits to outweigh the cost of
subscribing to the program. 

SolarTogether is another big step on Florida’s path to becoming
a national leader in solar energy.

“It really does put Florida on a trajectory to be a national
leader that we have felt for a long time has been needed, given,
you know, the Sunshine State,” said Dr. Stephen Smith, executive
director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “And the fact
that Florida needs to diversify its energy mix.” 

The “backbone” of FP&L’s solar ambitions 

Smith calls SolarTogether “the backbone” of FP&L’s
efforts to drastically increase solar deployment. The utility,
owned by NextEra Energy, in January set
out a goal
to install 30 million solar panels by 2030, which
equates to about 10 gigawatts. Wood Mackenzie Power &
Renewables ranked FP&L behind only First Solar in terms of
annual capacity additions in 2019. 

The community solar program itself would spur 20 new power
plants at 74.5 megawatts each. Customers can subscribe in
1-kilowatt increments which top out at 100 percent of their
kilowatt-per-hour load in the last 12 months. Each month customers
pay a subscription charge of $6.76 per kilowatt and will receive a
credit that starts at 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour and escalates
through a 30-year term. 

Participants in the program can adjust their subscription, move
it to a new household within FP&L territory or cancel it
without a fee.

After lobbying from advocacy groups like Vote Solar, FP&L
also set aside 37.5 megawatts for low income customers, which it
defines as those at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty
level (currently $51,500 for a household of four). 

States including
New Jersey
,
Colorado
and California have included low income access within
community solar programs, to varying degrees of success. Katie
Ottenweiler, Vote Solar’s southeast director, said
ensuring wider access
in Florida was essential to winning the
organization’s support for the program.

“In terms of the philosophy behind community solar, this
policy really should be about giving customers access who do not
have it right now,” Ottenweiler said. “It can’t just be about
large customer access. It also has to be about figuring out
creative ways to structure these programs so you can address the
energy burden issues.” 

Though general subscribers must wait seven years for their
credit levels to pencil to net economic benefit, the credit
available to low income subscribers outweighs the monthly
subscription charge from the start.

FP&L’s program is also designed to benefit
non-subscribers. The utility expects the build-out of solar to
generate $249 million in net cost savings. Though some of that
money will go to subscriber credits, some will be doled out to all
customers. It’s another aspect of the program that advocates
like. 

“Because these solar assets are so valuable and the price to
develop solar has come down, there’s this question of should we
be allocating these resources to particular subscribing customers
or should we just be putting these into rate base?” said
Ottenweiler. “From our perspective that’s not an either/or
it’s a both/and.” 

Still too complicated?

According to Ottenweiler, the settlement represents a “real
compromise.” But after managing that conflict, FP&L still has
challenges ahead. Beyond securing official approval from the public
service commission, the utility has to make sure it can meet the
program’s impressive size with equivalent demand. 

If residential subscribers sign up for 100 percent of their
average annual usage, the utility estimates it can serve about
74,500 customers with the 372.5 megawatts of residential and small
business capacity included in the program. FP&L has a deep well
to draw from with its own customers, and spokesperson Stephen
Heiman told GTM that 100,000 residential and small business
customers have already signed up to receive program updates.

But analysts suggest the program’s complicated credit
mechanism — a pernicious problem for community solar at large —
could hamper its uptake. The utility calculates bill credits by
multiplying solar production, a participant’s subscription level
and the “Benefit Rate,” a number FP&L quantifies using
solar system savings and other metrics. 

That calculation makes the program “kind of messy,”
according to Austin Perea, a senior solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie
Power & Renewables. 

“Community solar markets with simple 1-1 retail rate offsets
are still having difficulty reaching scale because community solar,
even when simply designed, is complicated,” said Perea. “Throw
a wonky subscription credit into a program and that convolutes
savings, which is then difficult to communicate to the customer,
and it makes the customer acquisition and retention that much more
difficult.” 

Smith at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the group
is “cautiously optimistic” that customers will respond
positively to the program. 

“There’s an appetite for it,” he said. “This has a lot
of potential, but companies have to market it, they have to stand
behind it, they have to make sure their customers have a good
understanding and good experience with it. And they’ve got to put
the solar systems out there and let people be aware of them.”

FP&L’s community solar program will need to blaze a trail in
the state. Florida hasn’t passed legislation allowing a
competitive community solar market — though one was introduced
and stalled out in 2019 — and in general is relatively closed to
third-party developers because utilities largely
develop projects on their own
. Other utilities in the state
have more modest shared solar programs, like Tampa Electric
Company’s 17.5-megawatt program unveiled in June. 

“It’s fantastic that FP&L recognizes their customers are
demanding solar,” said Hannah Muller, director of public policy
at Clearway Energy Group, a developer of community and distributed
solar. 

“It would be really exciting to see Florida open up the
opportunity for private companies to compete and innovate to see
what kind of community solar offerings they could tailor to
different market segments in Florida,” she added. “You might
find that some of those are even more compelling than what FP&L
has put forward.”

Source: FS – Transport 2
Community Solar Comes to the Sunshine State in a Big Way, Finally



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