Revealed: the Florida power company pushing legislation to slow rooftop solar

Florida Power & Light delivered bill text to a state lawmaker. Its parent company sent $10,000 to her campaign coffers.

Revealed: the Florida power company pushing legislation to slow rooftop solar
Rooftop solar, while critical to fighting climate change, is a threat to the traditional utility business model. (Martin Shields / Alamy)

Published in the Guardian, the Miami Herald

The biggest power company in the United States is pushing policy changes that would hamstring rooftop solar power in Florida, delivering legislation for a state lawmaker to introduce, according to records obtained by the Miami Herald and Floodlight.

Florida Power & Light (FPL), whose work with dark money political committees helped secure Republican control of the state Senate, is lobbying to hollow out net metering, a policy that lets Florida homeowners and businesses offset the costs of installing solar panels by selling power back to the company.

Internal emails obtained from the Florida Senate show that an FPL lobbyist, John Holley, sent the text of the bill to state Sen.. Jennifer Bradley’s staff on Oct. 18. FPL’s parent company contributed $10,000 to Bradley’s political committee on Oct. 20. A month later, Bradley filed a bill that was almost identical to the one FPL gave her. Another lawmaker introduced the same measure in the House.

Bradley said the donation was unrelated to the bill.

“Any decision I make to file legislation is based entirely on whether it’s in the best interest of our state and my district,” she said. “This discussion about fairness in metering is happening in legislatures across the country and it’s time for it to happen in Florida.”

FPL’s parent company, NextEra, said its political committee did not make its contribution to Bradley’s campaign “with an expectation of favor.”

An FPL spokesperson, Chris McGrath, said the company does not oppose net metering but that the law should be revised so rooftop solar users are not subsidized by other customers who continue to buy electricity and pay to maintain the power grid. FPL argues that rooftop solar could cost Florida utilities about $700m between 2019 and 2025, according to documents submitted to state regulators.

“We simply believe rooftop solar customers should pay the full cost of this investment,” McGrath said.

The solar industry is fiercely opposing the effort. Katie Chiles Ottenweller, southeast director for Vote Solar, said she was wary, given FPL’s clout in the Legislature.

“Companies do not pass legislation,” she said. “Legislators pass legislation. I’m hopeful this is a conversation-starter but at the same time it’s really hard to have a conversation when you have a gun to your head. The bill as it is written will decimate this industry.”

Only about 90,000 Florida electricity customers, about 1%, sell excess energy back to the grid. But the arrangement has driven significant rooftop solar expansion. The proposed legislation could seriously curtail that growth.

Nationwide, power companies are feeling pressured by the rise of distributed renewable energy. Rooftop solar, while critical to fighting climate change, is a threat to the traditional utility business model. Electricity companies like FPL make money off of the things they build: mainly large power plants and lines that bring that energy to customers. They don’t make money off of solar power generated from rooftops.

The Florida bill is just one front in a decade-long battle against the policy. FPL backed a failed ballot amendment in 2016 that would have allowed regulators to impose fees and barriers to rooftop solar installation. FPL has also invested millions in swaying elections in favor of Republicans.

According to reporting by the Orlando Sentinel, FPL executives have been tied to a series of “dark money” groups with untraceable donors. One group, Grow United, was behind a candidate who had no political background but the same last name as the incumbent Democrat. The candidate diverted votes and helped Republicans maintain a majority in the state Senate. A Florida state attorney is investigating. In response to questions for this story, FPL denied any wrongdoing related to political campaigns.

‘Significant costs’

Bradley, the bill sponsor, is a first-term senator but is close to Senate leadership. She is married to former state Sen. Rob Bradley, an influential politician who was head of the budget committee. Bradley said the bill language emerged after a meeting with Holley and other members of the utility industry.

“I looked at the language,” she said. “It was based on our discussion and it was one that I could support as a starting point.”

Emails show Bradley’s staff followed up with FPL after that discussion. On Oct. 8 of this year, legislative aide Katie Heffley emailed Holley under the subject line “Net Metering Bill.”

“Good afternoon, Hope you’re doing well,” Heffley wrote. “I just wanted to check in and see if you had any follow up information or language in regards to the net metering bill you discussed with Senator Bradley.”

Eight minutes later, Holley replied: “I do. Can I bring it to you all later today?”

Heffley suggested he could “send it via email today or we will be at the Capitol next week.”

Holley opted instead to drop off a copy in person. Ten days later, Heffley emailed him again.

“I just want to reach out and see if I could get an electronic copy of the net metering bill so I can put it into drafting,” she said.

Two days after that, on Oct. 20, NextEra Energy gave $10,000 to Bradley’s political committee, Women Building the Future, according to campaign records.

The email records were provided to the Herald and Floodlight by the Energy & Policy Institute, a watchdog that works to counter misinformation about renewable energy.

Under the bill, customers whose solar panels deliver energy back to the grid would be compensated less, at wholesale rather than retail rates. Utilities could also charge rooftop solar customers more by adding in facility charges, grid access fees and minimum monthly payments. Customers already using rooftop solar power before 2023 would be grandfathered in and keep previous compensation rates for 10 years.

Bradley said she was open to discussing alternative models, including a system in use in the Carolinas to pay rooftop solar customers for sending power to the grid when it is most in demand.

In an interview, Lawrence McClure, the House sponsor of the bill, said it was “not baked.”

“(It’s) very early on in this bill’s ride,” he said. “I think it has a real chance to settle out in a way that most parties are not upset.”

McClure noted that the net metering law is due for a discussion because it has not been updated in 13 years.

“I feel rooftop solar is beneficial to the environment, and Floridians,” he said. “I am concerned that it will result in significant costs here, but I also don’t want to destroy the rooftop solar industry in Florida.”

McClure did not receive campaign donations from FPL or its parent company in the period the bill was under discussion. But his campaign did get a $10,000 donation from a related political committee on Nov. 4. It came from Voice of Florida Business, which is linked to an industry group, Associated Industries of Florida. The group’s consultants also worked on the dark money campaigns in the state Senate, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

McClure said the contribution “had absolutely nothing to do with the sponsorship of the bill.”

“I don’t think there’s ever been any contribution that motivated me to sponsor a bill,” he said.

An Associated Industries of Florida consultant, Sarah Bascom, said the group “does not discuss specific political giving.”

“However, if you are implying that contributions given are tied to specific legislation being filed or not filed, the answer is an emphatic no,” she said.

‘Forced to subsidize’

Florida is one of 47 states to allow households and businesses that produce power to sell it back to the grid at a set rate. However, utilities are increasingly concerned about how the growth of distributed solar energy affects their bottom line.

In California, regulators plan to increase fees for rooftop solar customers. Even some environmental advocates say the change is fair and necessary because of the fast rate of rooftop solar development in that state. 

In Florida, rooftop solar expanded slowly until 2018, when regulators allowed electricity customers to lease solar systems with little or no upfront costs. That decision catapulted the growth of small-scale solar capacity in the state. It grew by 57% in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

FPL says its 24,000 net-metering customers cost the company $30 million in 2020, or about $1,250 per customer. Utility experts have testified to Florida regulators that rooftop solar in the state could grow at 39% a year until 2025 if the current net-metering system is left in place. Such growth has the utilities and legislators worried.

“As a result of the current system, my constituents are being forced to subsidize the decisions of neighbors in other counties who are in a position to be able to put these expensive systems on their homes,” Bradley said.

The solar industry frequently counters that rooftop solar in most states has not grown enough to substantially increase costs for other customers. 

Florida has the second-largest solar workforce in the United States, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. It ranks third among states for installed solar capacity, although much of that is large scale and utility owned. 

Justin Vandenbroeck, president of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association who also owns an Orlando-based solar installation company, said if the bill passes it could “send Florida back to 2013.”

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Mario is an investigative reporter and a Dominican immigrant. His byline has appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The New Republic and NPR.

Mario Alejandro Ariza/Floodlight