FPL Proposed Withholding Solar Benefits from 'Disloyal' Customers, until Journalists stepped in
- July 9, 2019
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This was a pretty alarming story that I came across today, where the role of journalists in keeping utlities representing the public interest in line came in play in a really fascinating way.
Background of Energy Choice Debate in Florida
To set the stage, the state of Florida is looking to join the list of a dozen or so other states that have offered deregulation to the energy market and allow customers to choose their power providers. In such a scenario, the local utility remains in control of the transmission and distribution systems (and is paid accordingly), but customers have the ability to shop around for their company of choice to provide generation. Customrs can choose based on price, extra 'features' offered by utilities, amount of renewable energy in the mix, or anything else they desire. The basic idea behind this change is that monopolistic utilities aren't motivated to innovate, improve, or offer new features, but competition breeds the best in all involved.
The topic of energy deregulation is a heated debate, with either side having many examples and arguments to throw out. Florida is set to allow its voters a chance to voice their take on such deregulation at the ballot box this fall, but whether or not that vote will be allowed to take place has been elevated to the state Supreme Court. As a primer, you can see the arguments for this proposal by the energy choice advocates here:
In the states with competitive electricity markets, increased competition has generally led to lower power prices, improved service, and innovative product offerings as the previously uncontested utilities must now do what they can to stand out amongst new rivals in order to keep customers.
Energy choice has also driven efficiency improvements, prompted energy providers to turn to greater renewable energy offerings, and even enabled community aggregation to enhance the benefits of electricity choice by grouping together large numbers of customers to drive down prices, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
On the other hand, opposition groups have of course sprung up and tried to reverse that narrative:
While proponents of the measure say increased competition would reduce prices, the Florida Chamber, AIF and utility companies argue that’s not the case. FARE’s board members are also pushing back on that claim.
“Deregulation allows third party providers to come between ratepayers and the power company and charge whatever they want,” Asencio said.
“It also allows them to engage in market schemes that unfairly target our most vulnerable citizens, particularly our seniors, leading to spikes in costs.”
“The latest efforts by some in Florida to deregulate our energy market is yet another attempt to bait and switch voters with a misleading initiative,” added former Democratic state Rep. Joe Gibbons, another member of FARE’s board.
What Happened with FPL
So, given all that-- what happened next and broke last week in the Miami Herald was pretty alarming, in my opinion. Florida Power and Lighting (FPL) proposed its 'SolarTogether' plan that would add 20 solar power plants and nearly 1.5 GW of renewable energy over the next two years, a groundbreaking plan that should certainly be celebrated by renewable energy advocates. Even customers who don't sweat renewable one way or another would have reason to be happy, as the long-term savings would be $139 million and most customers would be able to voluntarily participate by paying a premium to support these projects and then later receive credit back as the solar installations started bringing in money to the utility. This type of program seemed like a win-win and allowed everyone to reap the financial benefits of solar power.
However, the Miami Herald noted a catch-- "an exclusionary penalty for customers who do not support the 'continuity' of the program,' specifically those who support deregulation efforts like the Citizens for Energy Chocies ballot initiative.' This surprising exception was obatined after receiving video recordings of a public meeting, and upon investigation by the journalists the surprising clause was simply dropped by FPL.
The words of those involved need to be read on their own to be truly understood:
During the meeting, PSC staff pressed FPL on how it would track customers’ so-called “loyalty” and whether advocating against the program or FPL would automatically kick them off the list.
FPL attorney Maria Moncada said FPL wouldn’t use data mining to look into current or potential customers but would instead look at “credible evidence” of people who make public statements or sign petitions.
“We will not be data mining, we will not be conducting any Spanish inquisitions of any kind,” she said. “But if there is credible evidence that someone is speaking on both sides of this ... then we consider that to be unfair to the other customers.”
The idea of the slippery slope of punishing customers for public stances on energy regulation should be eyebrow-raising for everyone, no matter where you land on the energy deregulation issue. The concept of a utility looking into someone's individual beliefs and actions on political topics, which energy deregulation is, and offering them (or revoking) access to financially beneficial programs as a result is not a road we should go down.
What's your take on this whole issue? Let's discuss down below in the comments