In Florida, Buzz Words Drowning Out the Real Debate

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What happens when the merits of an argument fail? Change the subject. Blame someone. Or simply deflect attention from the possibility that maybe your approach isn’t the best one out there.

Those seem to be the preferred strategies of renewable energy blogger Brian Holton Henderson in a recent opinion piece in the Huffington Post. Unhappy with the pace of his vision for Florida, Henderson blames the usual suspects: the big utilities, regulators, and vague notions of cronyism. The most obvious explanation, of course, is that the vision of Henderson’s environmental left is bad for most customers. That explanation also happens to be true.

In his piece, Henderson laments that more Floridians have not installed rooftop solar panels, arguing that state government should do more to help cultivate Florida’s residential solar market. More government policy and greater public subsidy for solar are needed, says Henderson. Maybe even a renewable portfolio standard to strong arm utilities into procuring more solar power.

Rather than consider that such policies aren’t in the best interest of customers, Henderson alleges that “utilities have launched an unfolding offensive against the burgeoning renewable energy industry.” The article he uses to demonstrate that point? It doesn’t mention a utility effort at all, but a nationwide campaign by the American Legislative Exchange Council to point out that state policies on rooftop solar power often place additional burden on the backs of non-solar customers. PACE argued the same in an August 2013 white paper on Arizona’s net metering policy. A representative of NAACP just recently echoed that argument in a July 21st Florida Public Service Commission hearing on solar rebates and energy efficiency.

What Henderson calls an “unfolding offensive” is, in truth, a chorus of voices describing the built-in inequity of the sorts of solar policies Henderson admires. The message is simple. Customers who can’t afford to install expensive solar panels shouldn’t be forced to pay more to subsidize a select few customers who can. The real offensive being launched is by the acolytes of the solar movement, who seem to care little about confronting the faulty economics that underpin their preferred industry. There are sensible ways to deploy more solar power, of course, but voices like Henderson are far more focused on the speed of solar’s expansion, not whether it creates casualties in the form of low- and middle-income power customers.

While Henderson is free to scream cronyism and wrap himself in the banner of transparency, his approach to creating better energy policy in Florida would benefit from acknowledging a simple reality: the adoption of rooftop solar in Florida is modest because those systems are expensive. Without subsidies from utilities and other unwitting power customers, rooftop solar is a far less attractive bargain. It is a lesson that governments in Germany, Spain, and a handful of other European nations have learned the hard way. Everyone wants solar when someone else is helping to pay for it.

Pinning blame on big corporations and taking shots at regulators is easy. What is more difficult, but ultimately more fruitful, is to work through the political process toward solutions that work for everyone in the long run. That approach might not make great headlines, but it does yield good policy. And in the end, it might not make Florida number one in solar, but it will ensure its Public Service Commission doesn’t choose what is best for a small vanguard of pro-solar activists over what is best for most of the people who call it home.