Sunshine State Unveils a Sourcing Breakthrough

Florida Power & Light's proposed 1,500-megawatt community solar plan would be the nation's largest.

A plan by Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) to create the nation’s largest community solar program considered a model for more U.S. solar development is moving toward approval early next year after several stakeholders reached an agreement with the utility for improvements to the nearly 1,500-megawatt proposal.

Top concerns by renewable energy advocacy groups like Vote Solar and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) were ensuring that the program will benefit the utility’s low-income customers and allocate a greater share of the estimated $249 million in net savings to all FPL customers, including those not participating in the subscription-based model.

Walmart was also part of the settlement reached in early October that confirmed the retail giant’s ability to receive renewable energy credits from the community solar program that will eventually be powered by 20 facilities across FPL’s coverage area. Walmart has 148 stores and four distribution centers in the FPL territory. Walmart is one of the commercial, educational and government customers that will make up the bulk – 75 percent – of the subscription base for FPL’s SolarTogether community solar program.

Others FPL lists as supporters of the plan include 7-Eleven, Broward College, Florida Atlantic University, the counties of Brevard, Broward and Miami-Dade and cities including Sarasota, Coral Springs and West Palm Beach. Broward County officials estimate the county could save up to $46 million over 30 years through the program if it can offset all of the power it currently uses with solar energy credits from the community solar program,  according to a report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper.

In addition, FPL said more than 90,000 residential and small business customers have also signed up to receive more information. 

FPL filed a proposal in March 2019 for the community solar program with the Florida Public Service Commission. The utility is due back before the commission in January. A decision could come by March, according to George Cavros, Florida energy policy attorney with SACE.

Brass Tacks

The plan calls for participating customers to receive direct credits for the savings on their monthly bills and the program is designed to contribute a portion of the overall savings to all FPL customers. The original proposal called for the remaining 372.5 MW left after the commercial and governmental customers to be available to the residential and small business customers who would pay a fixed subscription fee to have 100 percent of their average energy usage coming from solar. They would also receive bill credits each month for their share of solar energy produced. FPL estimated customers would initially see a slight increase, realize a net bill reduction within three to five years and begin to receive payback within seven years.

Calling it a novel design, Cavros noted that SACE has been very supportive of the FPL plan. But SACE joined Vote Solar in requesting program enhancements, particularly the part of the program that related to the low-income customers, to make it beneficial to more people.

“While many of the participants who want to invest in solar can wait seven years to see a net benefit, we thought lower-income customers perhaps did not have that luxury,” Cavros said.

Cavros and Katie Chiles Ottenweller, the Southeast director for Vote Solar, said there are more than 3 million low-income residents in FPL’s territory that fall at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. They often reside in older homes that have inefficient cooling and heating systems that lead to higher energy bills.

The agreement the parties reached with FPL, preventing litigation on the matter, sets aside 10 percent – about 37.5 MW – for approximately 10,000 low-income customers. Under the agreement, Cavros said the subscription fee will never exceed the monthly bill credit for those customers. Vote Solar estimates participants will save $1,300 over the life of the program.

“So right off the bat the low-income customers are starting on an even keel,” Cavros said.

‘Important and Timely Model’

If approved by the PSC, SolarTogether also becomes the biggest low-income allocation of its kind. Calling it an “important and timely model,” Ottenweller noted other community solar programs have had problems getting low-income residents involved and the hope is the low-income component can be replicated elsewhere. Cavros said the agreement also calls for SACE and Vote Solar to work with FPL on future phases of the low-income portion of the SolarTogether program.

Cavros said the SolarTogether could be a model in other ways as well. It will feature a flexible subscription offering in 1-kilowatt increments up to 100 percent of their previous 12 month’s total kilowatt-hour (kWh) usage that can also be adjusted. FPL won’t charge upfront subscription fees or cancellation fees. As long as a customer stays within the FPL service territory, they can keep their subscription at a new location. The amount of the RECs will be based on the subscription level, length of time in the program and amount of energy generated by the solar power plants. Credits will increase the longer a customer is in the program. Participants may elect to have FPL retire on their behalf the RECs associated with their subscription.

Community solar works for both commercial and residential customers that can’t or don’t want to install solar panels on their roofs. FPL’s SolarTogether is a major part of the utility’s 30X30 program that is expected to lead to about 10GW of additional solar, or 30 million solar panel installations, within the FPL service area by 2030. FPL plans to have six installations ready by 2020 that would generate 74.5MW of solar power each for a total of 447MW and to have all the installations completed by 2021 if it receives regulatory approval.

FPL already operates 18 solar power plants, including two that feature advanced energy storage systems, in addition to hundreds of smaller solar installations, totaling about 1,250MW of solar capacity. The company’s largest solar facilities now are located in Charlotte, Brevard, Indian River, DeSoto, Putnam, Hendry, Alachua, St. Lucie, Manatee, Martin, Volusia, Columbia and Miami-Dade counties. It is also building plants expected to be operating by 2020 in Okeechobee, Palm Beach, Suwannee and Manatee counties that will generate a total of nearly 300 MW of new solar capacity.

Rising Solar Profile

The current solar capacity and plans to increase solar facilities under SolarTogether is moving Florida higher on the list of state solar developments.

“Florida has come a long way in a few years,” Cavros said. “By 2020, Florida will be number 2 in solar development behind California. It’s leapfrogged Georgia and is expected to surpass North Carolina by 2022.”

Florida was second behind California for state solar installations for the second quarter of 2019, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). SEIA’s U.S. Solar Market Insight Report released in September noted the U.S. solar industry now has the largest pipeline of utility-scale solar projects to date. The contracted pipeline is a record 37.9 GW and follows record-high procurement of 15GW in 2018, the report stated. Much of that is being driven by corporate solar procurement.

In Florida, Cavros noted two other major utilities – Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. – are also investing in solar and a number of municipalities as well.

“We have vast potential here in the Sunshine State,” Cavros said.