Florida Power and Light (FPL) reached an agreement with stakeholders to move forward on its 1,490 MW community solar program, filing a settlement with Florida regulators on Wednesday.
If approved, the project would be the largest in the U.S., almost doubling by 2021 the current 1,523 MW of community solar currently installed around the country. Three-quarters of the program is reserved for commercial customers, with the remaining quarter reserved for residential, but renewables advocates were concerned the residential slot was not set up in a way that would benefit the state's low-income customers.
Under the initial filing, all residential subscribers would sign up to pay a premium over seven years and then receive a bill credit that escalates 23 years after that. The settlement reserves 10% of the residential carveout, or 37 MW, for low income customers where the subscription fee and bill credits are both fixed costs and the fee is never higher than the credit.
Community solar programs allow multiple subscribers to receive power from a larger project, and many groups see it as a way to expand access to cheap, clean energy, particularly for low to middle income customers.
Facilities are also often used to expand corporate sustainability goals by allowing companies to purchase RECs from the project. Walmart, which has 148 stores and four distribution centers under FPL, was also party to the settlement, asking the utility to clarify it would get credit for renewable energy certificates used through the program.
While both segments are important targets, policies that ensure low income customers are able to access that power sometimes becomes a lower priority when utilities design these programs, Katie Chiles Ottenweller, southeast director of Vote Solar told Utility Dive.
"Community solar is one of the things that has taken so many forms that the term is almost meaningless at this point," said Chiles Ottenweller. "It's a very trendy term … We're seeing all kinds of flavors of it, so that in itself I think creates a challenge for making sure that these programs are designed in a way that meets some consistent guidelines for low income access."
More than 2 million customers out of FPL's over 5 million experience a higher than average energy burden, meaning electricity costs make up more than 3% of their household income, according to Vote Solar's testimony.
Though the seven year premium structure was less compatible with the needs of low-to-middle income customers who may not have the money to pay additional costs upfront, Vote Solar and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy both agreed the 10% carveout would greatly expand that access, especially considering the size of the project.
Around 10,000 low income customers will have the opportunity to participate and 45% of benefits from the program go to non-subscribers, meaning that all customers under FPL's umbrella will see savings from the solar generated by this project. The utility estimates $249 million in savings across its service territory over the life of the project, primarily through phasing out more expensive fuels.
The project is part of FPL's 30-by-30 project, which aims for 30 million solar panel installations by 2030. FPL's first six installations for the project will generate 74.5 MW of solar power each, totaling 447 MW, and be operational by 2020. The entire project is expected to be operational by 2021.
"We've been very critical of utilities in the past, particularly FPL, on some things," SACE Executive Director Stephen Smith told Utility Dive. "And I think that we want to continue to be very complimentary of this [project] … In the Southeast, we deal with a lot of utilities that are dabbling in solar, but they're not really taking solar to scale."
This post has been updated to clarify that the first six installations will be 74.5 MW each.