ST. PETERSBURG — Florida calls itself the Sunshine State. But when it comes to the use of solar power, it trails 19 states, including not-so-sunny Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Maryland.
Solar experts and environmentalists blame the state’s utilities.
The utilities have hindered potential rivals seeking to offer residential solar power. They have spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying, ad campaigns and political contributions. And when homeowners purchase solar equipment, the utilities have delayed connecting the systems for months.
Solar energy is widely considered an essential part of addressing climate change by weaning the electric grid from fossil fuels. California, a clean energy trendsetter, last year became the first state to require solar power for all new homes.
But many utilities across the country have fought homeowners’ efforts to install solar panels. The industry’s trade organization, the Edison Electric Institute, has warned that the technology threatens the foundation of the power companies’ business.
In Florida, utilities make money on virtually all aspects of the electricity system — producing the power, transmitting it, selling it and delivering it. And critics say the companies have much at stake in preserving that control.
“I’ve had electric utility executives say with a straight face that we can’t have solar power in Florida because we have so many cloudy days,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from the Tampa area. “I have watched as other states have surpassed us. I think that is largely because of the political influence of the investor-owned utilities.”
The state’s utilities have been expanding their own production of solar power. But Florida is one of eight states that prohibit the sale of solar electricity directly to consumers unless the provider is a utility. There is also a state rule, enforced by the utilities, requiring expensive insurance policies for big solar arrays on houses.
In 2009, a measure to require a certain amount of energy to be generated from renewable sources passed the state Senate but died in the House of Representatives when the utilities fought it. Solar proponents have been unable to find legislative traction for similar measures since then.
Mayor Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg — the site of Duke Energy’s Florida headquarters — has argued for changing the way utilities are regulated so they would embrace more energy efficiency, residential solar power and energy storage. The companies essentially see the solar-equipped homeowner as a competitor, not a customer, he said.
“If your profits are based on consumption, where’s your incentive to reduce electricity use?” Kriseman said.
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