Florida Power & Light Co. wants the right to charge its customers to build more solar power plants. Other companies just want the right to sell solar power.
Both are voices likely to be heard in the renewable-energy debate shaping up for this year's Legislative session.
Most key legislators and lobbyists want Florida to use renewable energy. But who should be allowed to generate and sell it? And who should pay to build the plants?
Energy giant FPL says regulated utilities are in the best position. It wants legislators this year to give utilities the right to charge customers to build the plants and then bill customers for the electricity. That would mirror a 2008 law that allowed the company to build three solar plants that can power 35,000 homes and businesses. It cost $623 million, including more than $120 million from a federal stimulus grant.
But consumer advocates and environmentalists say there's another way, one that lets renewable-energy companies install solar panels on customers' roofs and then sell the electricity to them. Customers don't pay for the system, just the electricity.
"The Publixes, Walmarts, Targets and Macy's would really like to have competitive renewable energy," said Schef Wright, an attorney for the Florida Retail Federation.
Homeowners could get the same deal, said John O'Brien, whose firm, Vista Energy Group in St. Augustine, represents two companies that want to build rooftop solar in Florida. "As electric rates go up, these systems end up paying for themselves" because the price of the solar power is fixed, he said.
FPL, AutoNation and the Florida Marlins are members of a group that is pushing a petition to give utilities the right to charge customers to build more solar plants. Audubon of Florida and Senate President Mike Haridopolos have expressed support, too.
FPL earned public kudos for its three solar plants. President Obama visited the plant in DeSoto County. And they're touted in a recent report by Gov. Rick Scott's economic development team, which includes an FPL executive.
Utility-built solar plants "deliver the best bang for the buck" for consumers, said Mark Bubriski, an FPL spokesman. Part of the reason is larger plants can cost less and the cost can be distributed over more customers.
Customers will pay for FPL's three solar plants over their 30-year lifespan, including less than 75 cents a month the first year for those who use 1,000 kilowatt-hours. The cost factors in projected fuel savings, and it would decrease gradually over the years. A court ruling on a state law has kept others from supplying renewable energy.
The roadblock dates back to 1988 when the Florida Supreme Court upheld a state regulators' decision that only fully regulated utilities can sell electricity directly to customers. Other producers can sell to the regulated utilities, but the utilities pay a fraction of what they charge customers.
The requirement to sell to power companies keeps Walmart, for example, from doing what it does at 40 stores in California, Arizona and Hawaii. There, it buys electricity from companies that placed solar panels on the stores.
The lower prices are why Florida Crystals said it won't run its power plant in western Palm Beach County at full tilt. The power plant produces some energy from leftover sugar cane fiber and wood from landfills, and it could produce more.
Gaston Cantens, a Florida Crystals vice president, said it is paid 4.5 to 5 cents a kilowatt hour. To turn a profit, the company would need to be paid closer to what the utilities charge customers, roughly 10 to 13 cents a kilowatt hour, he said.
Bubriski said FPL pays other producers less because it has to charge customers for other services, such as maintaining the grid and environmental and conservation fees.
So far this year, several proposed bills could lay the groundwork for competition.
Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, have proposed requiring utilities to pay renewable-energy producers the same rate they charge their own customers for clean energy plants.
Bennett is also drafting legislation to create areas where groups would be allowed to produce renewable energy and sell it to their neighbors directly. They could charge whatever price they like, as long as they pay the local regulated utility a fee to help maintain the electric grid. "What would happen is we get green energy, you as a consumer pay the exact same amount, and taxes don't increase," Bennett said.
Bubriski said FPL supports customers who want to produce their own renewable power but it can require "the consumer to make an initial investment of tens of thousands of dollars, which makes it a luxury." He said FPL's net metering program allows customers to generate up to 2 megawatts of renewable energy and get credits for that back on their bills.
"Utilities don't want others to sell energy," said Susan Glickman, a consultant for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a group that advocates on alternative energy issues. She said competition from large and small renewable-energy companies could help lower costs. "But that's where competition comes in, and that's going to help consumers and drive innovation," she said.
Allowing other companies to sell power to customers would force renewable-energy companies to bear the risk of building projects that are cost-effective, without the higher profit margins approved for utilities, said Mike Antheil, executive director of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, a trade group that represents about 100 renewable-energy companies.
But a recent state Senate report expresses concerns about allowing unregulated companies to sell power in Florida where utilities operate as regional monopolies. That's in part because utilities are charged with maintaining the grid and providing electricity at all times to all customers, unlike unregulated groups.
FPL President Armando Olivera said recently that he's "not afraid" of competition: "We operate in other states where it is competitive, and we've proven that we can compete."
In California, where renewable-energy producers are allowed to charge utilities more for energy from alternative sources than fossil fuel, FPL's unregulated alternative energy affiliate sells power produced by six 310-megawatt solar plants to Southern California Edison. California also requires utilities to find the cheapest renewable energy and has a state goal of having 20 percent of its energy supply come from renewable resources.
Florida doesn't have a similar goal. Environmentalists, the renewable-energy industry and FPL say they would like the state Legislature to set one, but they don't expect it to do so. The Republican-led Legislature may consider it a mandate.
FPL, for one, didn't push the idea last year because "we didn't think it had a chance," Olivera said.
Julie Patel can be reached at 954-356-4667 and firstname.lastname@example.org.