League of Women Voters joins effort to expand solar energy — with price break, too

Martin Cabrera and Joseph Molina of Cutler Bay Solar Solutions install solar panels at a home in South Miami-Dade, November 13, 2015.
Martin Cabrera and Joseph Molina of Cutler Bay Solar Solutions install solar panels at a home in South Miami-Dade, November 13, 2015. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Saying they face a “David and Goliath” fight against Florida’s utility giants in trying to bring rooftop solar energy collection to the Sunshine State, the League of Women Voters on Thursday announced the creation of a new organization that will form “solar co-ops” around the state to obtain bulk discounts for community-based solar installations.

The group, FL SUN, is a non-profit established to solicit competitive bids from local installers and provide individualized proposals for groups of homeowners that reflect the group discounts.

The first two projects are in St. Petersburg and Orlando, using a model begun a decade ago by Community Power Network, a national nonprofit that helps communities build and promote local renewable energy projects and policies, in Washington, D.C., Maryland and is now also active in West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio. FL SUN, which is financed by public and private grants, also has plans to quickly expand to Brevard, Volusia, Alachua and Sarasota counties and hopes to operate in more parts of the state.

“The League’s role is going to be one we’re very comfortable and familiar with — that’s education,” said Deirdre Macnab, chair of the League’s Natural Resources/Solar Action Group and a member of the 80-member Orlando co-op. “We are going to be helping citizens understand how they can save money and better conserve energy in their houses by putting on forums.”

Under the program, co-op members work together to obtain a competitive bid from a rooftop solar contractor and together they obtain a discount of up to 20 percent off.

Each participant signs his or her own contract with the installer, but everyone gets the bulk discount and the advantage of navigating the process together. The installer, who normally spends up to 30 percent of his costs on finding customers, pays the co-op a referral fee of $500 per customer and both sides save money, said Angela DeMonbreun, FL SUN’s state director.

There is no cost to join the co-op but members will be allowed to vote on the final vendor from among the bidders, she said.

The Orlando co-op, known as the Central Florida Solar Advocates, was the first to bring the concept to Florida, after having learned about the success of the Maryland-based program from a story on National Public Radio.

The group received bids from 45 companies and ultimately hired Tampa-based Solar Energy Management to offer the service. the group then launched a second cooperative with plans to create more.

Although Florida has the third largest number of residential electricity customers in the nation, expansion of rooftop solar has moved slowly as utility regulators have reduced energy efficiency programs and the Florida Legislature has ended solar rebates. Today, only about 11,626 of the 7.9 million utility customers in Florida have rooftop solar installed — less than 1 percent — according to the Florida Public Service Commission.

In an attempt to “expand the solar community” by promoting changes in state and local policies, FL SUN will to do more than just help people navigate the often-complicated process of installing solar, DeMonbreun said.

“Ballot initiatives could greatly impact the ability to go solar,” she said. To that end, the group will also be working to educate voters to vote “yes” on Amendment 4, the solar proposal on the Aug. 30 primary ballot that will give small businesses and commercial buildings a tax break on equipment if they install solar.

The group is also urging voters to vote “no” on the utility-backed Amendment 1 proposal on the November ballot, which would install into the state Constitution existing law and expand on the disputed claim that solar customers are subsidized by non-solar customers.

“What Amendment 1 attempts to do is it enshrines in the state Constitution the misinformation, and not factually valid information, that somebody who puts solar on their home is costing other customers money,” said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and a supporter of the new FL SUN project.

“It is a deceptive ballot that is set up to do nothing more than perpetuate the utility control over the solar marketplace and limit customer options.”

Smith said if Amendment 1 passes, electric companies will use it to justify increasing charges to solar customers or reductions in net metering — the process that allows customers to transfer their surplus power generated by their solar systems to the grid, allowing customers to offset the cost of power drawn from the utility.

McNab said that having two proposals on two different ballots is confusing so the group hopes to simplify it: “Yes in August. No in November,” she said.

Also Thursday, the Florida Realtors announced their support for Amendment 4 on the August ballot. The measure also has the support of Tea Party organizations, the Christian Coalition and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.

“It will encourage Florida’s business community to invest in solar, which will expand the use of clean energy and help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” said Matey H. Veissi, broker and co-owner of Veissi & Associates in Miami who is the 2016 president of the Florida Realtors.

There are no announced opponents to Amendment 4. By contrast, Smith said, there are no known solar energy suppliers who support Amendment 1 on the November ballot.

Mary Ellen Klas is Tallahassee bureau chief. She can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas