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Florida's rooftop solar industry is in danger with new legislation before DeSantis


In Florida, there's new legislation before Governor Ron DeSantis that would be a major blow to the Sunshine State's rooftop solar industry. Utilities defend the measure, saying that now nonsolar customers are subsidizing solar ones. Amy Green of WMFE has the story.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: On a sunny afternoon at an Orlando neighborhood center, children run and play on a playground and shoot hoops on a basketball court. High above the children's heads on the neighborhood center's roof, 260 solar panels are turning the sunshine into energy. The neighborhood center offers after-school childcare and other services for residents of this diverse, working-class neighborhood. A local company called 15 Lightyears installed the panels. Lisa Pearcy is the founder and owner of the business.

LISA PEARCY: It's a pretty great thing to be able to harness the power of the sun, to bring it into a community where maybe they're on a scale where they can't do it in their apartments or they're in a scale where they can't bring it into their homes because they're renters, but they still have access to clean, renewable energy.

GREEN: But now Pearcy is concerned for her business' future. The legislation before DeSantis involves net metering, a billing arrangement aimed at compensating rooftop solar customers for excess energy they send back to the grid. Utilities say the arrangement means that nonsolar customers pay more for electricity. They are backing the measure, which would phase in new net metering rates beginning in 2024. Here's Chris McGrath of Florida Power and Light Company.

CHRIS MCGRATH: If you don't have solar panels on your roof, which is the vast majority of electric customers, you're paying extra to support somebody else who has made a private purchase.

GREEN: But clean energy advocates say the measure would reduce financial incentives for rooftop solar, discouraging new customers and decimating the $18.3 billion solar industry in the state. They want DeSantis to veto the legislation. Here's how Justin Vandenbroeck of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association says the measure would work.

JUSTIN VANDENBROECK: Think of rollover minutes where, you know, if you had an extra 100 minutes left over at the end of the month, instead of getting those full 100 minutes, you get - starting in 2024, you're going to get 70 minutes (laughter). And then a couple of years later, you get 50 minutes and then potentially less.

GREEN: Solar customers represent less than 1% of all energy consumers in Florida, but the industry is growing fast here. Solar is projected to meet up to 30% of the state's energy needs in the next 10 years, according to advocates. The legislation comes as Florida lacks any real plan for reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and transitioning toward cleaner energy sources. Jonathan Webber of Florida Conservation Voters points out that's even as the state is uniquely vulnerable to climate change.

JONATHAN WEBBER: On the House floor, we've heard members deny that climate change is a human-caused problem, which is shocking considering it's 2022.

GREEN: When it comes to climate change, DeSantis doesn't talk about it much, focusing instead on reliance and adaptation. Back at the Orlando neighborhood center, Lisa Pearcy of 15 Lightyears thinks that if DeSantis signs the legislation, that could lead to a boom-and-bust scenario for rooftop solar as energy consumers rush to purchase panels ahead of the new net metering rates. She worries most about lost jobs.

PEARCY: It's a really new industry, and so there's a lot of heartbeat to it. And I think taking that away is going to not only affect my business, of course - it will, but it will also affect, really, the opportunities that we can't even see yet.

GREEN: DeSantis' office had no comment on how the governor might act on the legislation. If he signs it, the measure would take effect July 1.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Green