Duke Energy gets green light on solar plans

solar rooftop
Credit: Getty Images

Duke Energy Florida may proceed with its “Clean Energy Connection” program, designed to generate 750 megawatts of solar power in 2022, as approved Tuesday by the Florida Public Service Commission.

“We found the program to be in the public interest because it encourages the development of renewable energy, lessens Florida’s reliance on fossil fuels, and decreases carbon emissions,” said PSC Chairman Gary Clark.

In a nutshell, Duke’s construction of solar power plants will be financed in part by customers, who can subscribe to pre-pay for the solar power yet to come and get credits for it later.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental and public interest law organization, dissented. It charged that Walmart, a signatory to the agreement, would be the chief benefactor by subscribing on a massive scale, while low-income customers cannot afford higher rates now for lower rates later.

Earthjustice represents populations who are already struggling to pay their utility bills during the pandemic economy. In October, it petitioned the Public Service Commission for a moratorium on disconnections due to non-payment, but the commission refused.

“It’s a false debate,” Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall told the Phoenix. He said Walmart stands to profit by $35 million over 30 years, while solar power programs should instead make energy not only cleaner but more affordable for millions of low-income citizens.

“This program is not what it seems and it will send millions of dollars to large corporations – like Walmart – at the expense of ordinary customers,” Marshall continued in prepared remarks.

“It doesn’t have to work this way. For example, Tampa Electric Company, the City of Tallahassee, and Orlando Utilities Commission all have voluntary solar programs that customers can choose to pay extra to support.  Under those programs, the customers who choose to participate pay for all of the costs of the solar that the utilities incur, and no costs are passed on to those customers who are unable or unwilling to participate.”

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, or SACE, signed on to the agreement, stressing that “innovation is required” to get shared solar programs badly needed in Florida operating at the scale of Duke’s program.

George Cavros, Florida energy policy director with SACE, praised the agreement for reserving fractions of the 750-megawatt program for special sectors. The set-aside for low-income customers is 26 megawatts, or nearly twice the capacity of Tampa Electric’s entire shared solar program, Cavros said. Another 75 megawatts of capacity is set aside for local governments.

“It will additionally expand access to solar for local governments, schools, low-income families, and local businesses. Moreover, the program’s 750 megawatts of clean, renewable solar power will provide cleaner air to local communities,” Cavros told the Phoenix. “Given Florida’s current regulatory structure, this innovative solar program is a pathway to a cleaner energy future.”

Duke Energy Florida has approximately 1.8 million customers.