Commentary: Community solar a key to energy equity in Florida

Katie Chiles Ottenweller, Vote Solar

Finally, the Sunshine State is living up to its name and taking steps to become a true leader in the solar revolution.

A critical component of our just transition to renewable energy is ensuring that every Floridian can participate and benefit from affordable, clean, local solar power. That’s why we must extend the benefits of solar power to renters and people with homes that are not suitable for solar panels.

Community solar power projects are a smart solution for Florida residents, and communities across the country. But utilities must take action to ensure everyone is able to participate and benefit. That’s why Florida Power and Light’s (FPL) improved SolarTogether program is such an important milestone for solar energy freedom, and a model that other electric utilities would be wise to pay attention to.

In March, FPL announced its plan to deploy nearly 1,500 megawatts of community solar through its SolarTogether program – the largest community solar investment in the United States. Like other community solar programs, SolarTogether allows you to subscribe to part of a local, offsite solar array and receive a credit on your electricity bill for the solar produced by your subscription. Community solar has the potential to open the door to solar for those who may otherwise be unable to take advantage of solar’s financial benefits — but this potential is only realized through intentional program design. 

This month, FPL, Vote Solar and other parties announced improvements to the SolarTogether program to better serve low-income customers’ needs. FPL’s updated proposal would now allow approximately 10,000 low-income households to participate in the SolarTogether program. Low-income subscribers will have a one year payback period, with a “hold harmless” provision to ensure that there is never an increase in their utility bills. Vote Solar estimates that participants will save $1,300 over the life of the program. FPL will also offer a free home energy audit to subscribers that will help low-income families tap into even more savings. This program is also expected to save millions of dollars for non-subscribing customers of FPL due to the fuel cost and avoided generation savings that come from investments in solar power. 

In addition to being the biggest community solar program in the country, the 37.5 megawatts set aside for low-income customers is also the biggest low-income allocation of its kind. Solar is now the cheapest electricity source in Florida, so it’s important that families with high energy burdens are able to benefit from solar’s low cost. Other community solar programs have run into problems of identifying and engaging low-income customers, which is why this program serves as such an important and timely model.

Across the country, states are looking for ways to meet renewable energy goals. Nearly one in four Americans now live in a state with a legally binding commitment to 100 percent clean energy. Community solar programs that intentionally and explicitly create opportunities for low and moderate income families must be part of the solution.

But only 19 states and DC have a statewide community solar program. The community solar market currently accounts for 1 gigawatt of installed capacity, but with the right policies and programs can sustainably scale to 50-70 times that size by 2030, according to GTM Research. States without community solar programs will need to pass legislation, with the inclusion of low- and moderate-income programs, to realize this opportunity. The result could be upwards of 8 million new solar customers, including 2 million low-to-moderate income customers, and $100 billion in capital investment.

State governments and utilities alike must get behind innovative, cost-saving, clean and local energy solutions like community solar. From the forced blackouts in California to the blustering shores of hurricane-stricken Florida, the climate crisis is here and our adaptation and resilience strategies are being tested. We can do more than just react, we can reimagine our energy economy from the ground up, right here in our communities, to reduce the harm of our energy systems and create a more equitable and sustainable future.

Katie Chiles Ottenweller is the Southeast director for the national solar advocacy nonprofit Vote Solar.

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