Florida is about to get a massive solar buildout

The Sunshine State’s largest utility will more than double its solar capacity, but its plan doesn’t please all community advocates.
By Ingrid Lobet

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Florida Power & Light Solar Energy Center
(Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Florida, a state known for its political leaders’ refusal to face the climate crisis, has just embraced a plan to more than double the solar power capacity of its largest utility.

The Florida Public Service Commission last week voted unanimously to approve a long-watched request by Florida Power & Light to build 3.5 gigawatts of new solar capacity over the next five years.

The new buildout will add 16 million solar panels across 50 sites, on top of the roughly 3 gigawatts of solar power FPL has already deployed. It’s part of a major expansion that’s pushed the state from 10th in the country for solar in 2016 to fourth place in 2021, and an expected move to third place next year. The plan will also add electric-vehicle charging stations in the state.

Florida is a rapidly growing state on the front lines of climate change and our customers deserve bold, decisive, long-term actions,” said FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy. FPL has set a 30 by 30” goal to deploy 30 million solar panels in the state by 2030

A wide range of organizations worked on or supported the plan, from renewable advocacy groups to business trade associations, including Vote Solar, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Cleo Institute, the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Industrial Power Users Group. 

The utilities have really been stepping up their investment in clean energy,” said George Cavros, Florida energy policy attorney for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who has engaged closely with the Public Service Commission for a decade. 

About half of the new solar capacity will come from community solar or subscription solar projects, in which the electricity produced by panels in one area is subscribed” to by users in another area. In Florida, the definition of community solar includes arrangements for commercial and industrial utility customers to subscribe to a portion of solar power generated by arrays built by the utility. These large power users don’t always have enough roof area to match their demand. 

The plan also includes the more common type of community solar, aimed at people who lack access to their own rooftop panels, said Katie Chiles Ottenweller, Southeast director for the advocacy group Vote Solar. A portion of the power from FPL’s subscription projects will be reserved for low-income households. 

The thing we are most excited about is the fact it is going to be bringing 45 megawatts of additional capacity set aside for low-income customers where they will get immediate savings” when they subscribe to FPL’s SolarTogether community solar program, she said. FPL’s first tranche of 1.5 megawatts of subscription and community solar, launched last year, had been fully subscribed as of this summer. 

Utilities turn to solar as the lowest-cost resource

Solar and wind power are a no-brainer for utilities these days, having supplanted natural-gas power plants as the cheapest source of electricity in the country, according to analyses by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

That’s an essential development given the need to dramatically expand renewable power to combat climate change. The International Energy Agency reported earlier this year that solar and wind power must be added four times faster than in 2020 if the world is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the target set by climate scientists to give us a chance to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius over the coming century.

The Florida grid has its idiosyncrasies. The state is not deregulated, meaning utilities own their own generation and are vertically integrated. FPL serves some 11 million residents, making it one of the largest vertically integrated regulated utilities in the country.

Some energy experts have criticized the state for making it very difficult for third-party developers to compete in building solar. Vote Solar’s Chiles Ottenweller said there should be a place for competitive, third-party-backed community solar, but it would probably require enabling legislation. 

The solar buildout is part of a larger FPL plan that was approved on Tuesday, which includes a record-setting increase in rates the utility will be allowed to charge its customers to recover the costs of its investments and operations.

Some groups said the package will cost residential electricity customers far too much. In a filing with the Public Service Commission, three organizations — Florida Rising, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida — criticized FPL’s relentless” buildout, which serves as a basis for setting electricity rates, from some $16 billion in 2009 to a projected $68 billion in 2025, despite the projected population increase for that period being only 20 percent. The groups are also skeptical of FPL’s community solar efforts, referring to the utility’s faux-community solar program.” 

But the commission approved FPL’s plan unanimously, noting that residents in northwest Florida’s Panhandle, where the utility recently expanded its territory, will have lower rates than they would have otherwise. 

Commission Chair Gary F. Clark said public interest in the package was enormous, noting that he had received more than 1,100 emails.

FPL was already the state’s largest utility when it merged with Gulf Power Company in the Panhandle earlier this year, creating a combined company that controls 55 percent of electricity sales in Florida.

Existing solar farms in Florida are dispersed across the state, but most are inland. Florida’s Instagram image is of sun and palm trees on beaches, but in coastal areas, a cloud in the summer can form in minutes and block large solar arrays, so geographic distribution across different parts of the state makes sense. The acquisition of Gulf Power gives FPL a stretch of western territory where it can build solar that will continue generating energy later into the evening.

While the state is ascending the solar rankings, it ranks low by several other climate metrics. Famously, Republican Governor Rick Scott, who held the office from 2011 to 2019, banned state officials from even using the term climate change.”

Watchdogs like Cavros say Florida is sadly far behind on climate-related policies like energy-efficiency programs that would save residents money. A new proposal for efficiency programs is expected from the Public Service Commission in the coming weeks. It will be another sign of how ready state officials are to address the climate crisis and its impact on Floridians.

Ingrid Lobet currently divides her time between reporting on climate solutions and investigative work on climate, energy and environmental health.