Editorial: FPL making strides in solar, but strictly on its own terms

As Eric Silagy tells it, Florida Power & Light Co. is doing great things: delivering electricity at admirably low rates and keeping energy flowing reliably, all while dramatically cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The FPL president and chief executive met with The Post Editorial Board on Tuesday. His main message: the state’s largest utility is making big strides in alternative energies — wind and solar — without Floridians needing that pesky solar choice amendment on the 2016 ballot.

“We are trying to be progressive,” he said. “I really want to see [solar] happen. But I want it to be smart.”

So do we. But who decides what’s “smart” for consumers is the question.

According to Silagy, FPL customers’ electric bills are 30 percent lower than the national average — with the average bill 13 percent lower than in 2006. The system’s reliability is about 35 percent higher than the national average. FPL’s emission profile is the lowest of any utility in Florida, “and one of the cleanest in the United States.”

How did the company cut emissions? By deciding to modernize its generating plants and to move away from oil, which carried too many geopolitical and environmental drawbacks. “In 20o1, FPL burned more oil than any utility in America generating electricity. We burned 41 million barrels,” Silagy said. “Last year, we burned 150,000 barrels. That’s a 99-plus percent reduction.”

Now 68 percent of the system’s electricity stems from natural gas; 23 percent from nuclear power; coal accounts for 4 percent; solar power is less than 1 percent.

But FPL’s solar investment is growing, Silagy said — not by putting solar panels on individuals’ houses but by building large-scale installations. These are more efficient than rooftop setups, he said, delivering 2.5 times as much solar energy per dollar.

Three plants are due to start up in 2016, tripling FPL’s solar capacity at no net cost to customers, he said. The six FPL sites in operation by then will equal 65,000 rooftop installations (producing about 335 megawatts), the company said.

When all these large installations are humming, the Sunshine State will rise from its middling position in state rankings (currently 13th in solar capacity, or possible maximum output; 10th in solar generation, or amount of electricity produced) to the upper tier, Silagy said.

Which brings us to the 2016 ballot. FPL and the state’s other large utilities oppose the amendment from Floridians for Solar Choice, which would allow third parties to sell electricity in small-scale installations, a potential boon to the rooftop-panel industry. Is this because they want to protect their monopoly positions?

Not at all, Silagy said: What they oppose is the potential, given the amendment’s language, that the rooftop industry would go unregulated, which could be harmful to consumers as well as unfair to the regulated utilities.

The measure’s backers insist that consumers would have the same recourse against bad business practices as in any other industry — and we suspect that the utilities are exaggerating this point to scare the public.

But we agree with Silagy that the constitutional amendment route is a poor way to set policy on an issue like this.

Unfortunately, FPL has chosen a cynical tactic to fight back: teaming with fellow utilities and Koch brothers-backed groups to promote an opposing amendment called Consumers for Smart Solar. This second amendment, which basically enshrines the status quo, appears to exist mainly to confuse voters.

In a perfect world, it should be the Legislature that sets rules to allow a freer market in energy production, and ignites an exciting new industry. Yet in the real world of Tallahassee, where utilities have pumped at least $12 million since 2010 into campaigns of state legislators and Gov. Rick Scott, there’s little hope of an airing, let alone a change.

As we’ve said before, the best outcome would be something like Georgia’s, which passed a law this year to become the 23rd state allowing solar installers to offer third-party financing of installations. This was made possible after the rooftop-installation people and the state-regulated Georgia Power Co. struck — egad! — a compromise.

In Florida, these groups are at loggerheads, and in the ballot battle the likely winners are the utilities. Given this reality, we are heartened that FPL has taken the strides it has in delivering cleaner energy, and we hope that solar generation becomes an ever-larger factor in its energy mix.

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