Bill Young, Florida Solar Energy Center retired

Florida’s Solar Energy Choice: Sunshine State vs. Status Quo

My guest today is Bill Young who was a senior research engineer at the Florida Solar Energy Center from 1990 to 2013.

Some of the bigger utilities are feeling that it’s cutting into their profits. Some of the bigger utilities feel that they should be doing it all and not anybody else just because that’s their mission in life and for their stockholders. They’re supposed to generate electricity so anybody else is competition for their marketplace. So you see some pushback. ~ Bill Young

But first I have something to share with you.

Floridians for Solar Choice vs. Consumers for Smart Solar

The Positive Polarity Report

Florida Solar Energy Choice - Sunshine State vs Status Quo
Florida’s Solar Energy Choice: Sunshine State vs. Status Quo

I have a story about a battle over solar rights in Florida that has been unfolding this year. It’s kind of crazy so bear with me.

Florida is one of only four states in the U.S. that prohibit anyone other than a utility from selling electricity. The other three states are Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Georgia was in that group too but they recently passed a new law.

So what does this mean for solar? In other states a solar company can install a system on your roof with no upfront cost. This is often referred to as third-party ownership because the solar company maintains ownership of the system. They sell you power through a Solar Power Purchase Agreement. Typically you buy power from the solar company at a lower rate than the utility charges AND it does not go up over the term of the agreement. The agreement might be for 20 years or more. That’s a great deal because the cost of power from your fossil fuel-based utility is guaranteed to increase over time. Third-party ownership is a great way for people who can’t afford a system to get renewable energy and save money on their electric bill. It’s contributed a lot to the growth of solar in states where it’s allowed. In 2014, third-party ownership made up 72% of the solar system sales in the U.S.

Early this year a group called Floridians for Solar Choice was formed with the goal of making third-party ownership legal in Florida. They are a coalition of conservative, business and energy policy groups working on getting a ballot initiative approved for the November 2016 election. That’s a really difficult and expensive process but basically you get signatures on a petition to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and then voters decide whether it should pass. Their initiative is called the “Solar Choice Amendment.” The amendment would allow businesses in Florida to generate and sell up to two megawatts of solar power to customers on the same or neighboring properties. So solar companies could install a system on your roof and sell you the power or a landlord could install a system and sell power to his or her tenants, or a big retailer could install a system and sell power to adjacent retailers.

Getting an initiative on the ballot isn’t easy though. Here are the steps.

  1. Write your amendment, plus a title and summary for the ballot
  2. Register as a Political Committee
  3. Get your petition form approved by the Division of Elections
  4. Wait to be assigned a Serial Number and put it on your petition form
  5. Start getting signatures of registered Florida voters
  6. Submit signed petitions for verification by the supervisor of elections
  7. Pay for the cost of verification, which could be 10 cents per signature. You might be able to get the fee waived but only if you didn’t pay anyone to collect signatures.
  8. Number 8 is a big hurdle. Review by the Florida Supreme court. Once you have 10% of the total required number of signatures the Secretary of State sends the petition to the Attorney General who asks the Supreme Court to provide an opinion as to whether the text of the proposed amendment, ballot title and summary meet all of the legal requirements. The Secretary of State also sends a copy of the petition to the Financial Impact Estimating Conference  who creates a financial impact statement that will go on the ballot.
  9. Get the rest of the signatures by February 1st of the election year. The total number of signatures required is 8 percent of the number of voters that voted in the last presidential election.  For Florida that number is currently 683,149.
  10. Finally your initiative has to get at least 60% of the vote for the amendment to become law.

Floridians for Solar Choice just got past step 8, approval from the Florida Supreme Court. Attorney General, Pam Bondi, opposed the initiative and argued that the language was misleading. The initiative refers to barriers to local solar and she claimed that since people are currently able to purchase a system there are no barriers to solar. Also, the Florida League of Cities joined with the Florida Municipal Electric Association in arguing against the initiative. That started a big uproar. Thirteen cities across Florida were upset with the League because they felt it was acting in the interest of the utilities rather than the cities.

But the Supreme Court DID approve the initiative. So the last step is to get the rest of the 683,149 signatures by February 1st, 2016. They’re off to a great start. It seems like it would be simple to get the signatures right? Who wouldn’t want the freedom to produce or buy renewable energy.

But this is where it gets complicated and I need to back up a little bit. This summer a different group called Consumers for Smart Solar popped up with a competing ballot initiative. Their initiative will strengthen the status quo, protecting the utilities’ absolute monopoly right to sell power. The name Consumers for Smart Solar might make you think that they’re a consumer group but their donors include: Duke Energy, Florida Power and Light, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric Company. Some of their other donors, like the 60 Plus Association and the National Black Chamber of Commerce are backed by the Koch brothers.

Consumers for Smart Solar claim the “Solar Choice Amendment” is “shady” and will benefit “big” out-of-state solar companies. In fact they refer to it as the “Shady Solar Amendment” every time they mention it. They seem to be trying to create confusion and fear. Their ballot title includes the words “solar energy choice”, which sounds very similar to the Solar Choice Amendment. They also claim that the Solar Choice Amendment will result in fees and taxes for everyone whether they have solar or not. There are no fees or taxes in the Solar Choice Amendment. The only way new fees will be added is if the utilities convince the public service commission to add them.

Consumers for Smart Solar is led by former state representatives Dick Batchelor and Jim Kallinger. At their kickoff press conference they both signed the petition and Kallinger had this to say,

On both sides of the aisle, there is broad agreement that solar will be an essential part of Florida’s energy future, that’s why we asked Floridians for Solar Choice to consider changes to its ballot language that would protect consumers, not just big, out-of-state solar companies.  We’re here today because they refused. ~ Jim Kallinger

With all this broad agreement and reaching across the aisle you have to wonder why Floridians for Solar Choice felt they needed to attempt a ballot initiative. After all it’s a long expensive process. They explain that on their website. It reads,

Bills to allow solar choice have been filed with the Florida Legislature the last 3 years but – due to the undue influence of monopoly power companies – they didn’t make it out of the legislative committees. The bills were never even granted a hearing. That’s why we must take the issue directly to the people.

That’s not that surprising. According to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, utility companies have made $12 million in campaign donations to state lawmakers since 2010.

That’s money that came from Floridians’ electric bills. So the utilities have a history of investing their profits in politics to protect their monopoly status. Why not donate a couple million more to Consumers for Smart Solar to create some confusion and try to derail the Solar Choice Amendment. If Consumers for Smart Solar win they get their monopoly status inserted into the state constitution. If neither amendment wins the utilities still come out ahead. Nothing changes and they keep their monopolies.

This is going to be a big battle. It will be interesting to see if Consumers for Smart Solar get their initiative through the Supreme Court. They have spent almost 2.5 million on a Nevada-based political consultant who specializes in petition drives, but they are still running behind in the race to get  signatures. At the moment Floridians for Solar Choice have about 220,000 signatures, while Consumers for Smart Solar have almost 208,000. Polls show that 74% of Florida voters support the Solar Choice initiative. Hopefully Consumers for Smart Solar won’t be able to erode that with confusing messages and scare tactics.

Featured Guest: Bill Young, Florida Solar Energy Center (retired)

Bill Young - Florida Solar Energy Center retired
Bill Young, Florida Solar Energy Center senior research engineer (retired)

Bill Young has had an exciting career as an electrical engineer and seen a lot of changes in the renewable energy industry. He worked at GE before going to the Florida Solar Energy Center. He retired from the center in 2013 and still runs his own solar consulting firm, Sun Tree Consulting.

DB: So Bill you used to be with the Florida Solar Energy Center.

BY: Yes, I was there 22 years. I started there in 1990 and just recently retired.

DB: When was the center founded?

BY: Back in 1974 by the state legislature. It was the only solar energy center I think that was enacted that way, during the oil crisis to deal with energy issues. And so it was thermal and photovoltaics and because there was a tie to the University of Central Florida it expanded to all kinds of renewables.

DB: Where is that University located.

BY: The University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, center of the state.

DB: So that center has been there a long long time, probably seen a lot of research projects go through there. Can you elaborate on some of the work that you did while you were there?

BY: One of the early projects, the U.S. Department of Energy created what was called the RES.

RES stands for Regional Experiment Station

BY: The RES which was to study solar energy in residential homes and buildings.  Okay so the DOE worked with a Sandia contract which is where the money came through. So that was a project that went on through the early 80s. And they did a lot of work and there was the southwest RES and the northeast RES and you could test things by the weather. So you had desert impact on solar, the hot and humid Florida impact and in the northeast in Massachusetts with the cold and snowy impact on solar. And so we were able to compare the designs of equipment and their operation and the impact by the environment.

DB: Was that work on solar hot water?

BY: Photovoltaics.

DB: And they did a lot of work with solar thermal or solar hot water there as well right?

BY: Yes, we helped set the standards and we were one of the original research centers that set up the thermal hot water standards that then became national throughout the country. And so we were one of the first to do that and we were testing thermal collectors and putting a certification performance number onto them. And we were also asked to do the same thing for PV, photovoltaics, because the state law required it, but the thing about the hot water side is that it became a national standard.

DB: And that was so that manufacturers couldn’t just put a new product onto the market and claim that it was going to work for 20 years and have a lot of people suffer problems down the road.

BY: FSEC started from the consumer protection concept because during the oil crisis a lot of people started doing all kinds of things to save energy and some of them had no real basis to them. And so the law was passed for us to educate, test, evaluate and set standards for solar so that someone from Florida bought a product he at least had some kind of performance tag, an evaluation sheet, a spec sheet that told him what it was doing. And by us testing it, being a third party tester, whose professionally doing it then you could have confidence in the performance of the equipment.

DB: Florida is maybe what, the second or third state in the nation with regard to the amount of sunshine that it gets.

BY: I think it’s more like fifth or sixth. You got the deserts, you got New Mexico and Arizona that’s got the deserts. They’re the top and then Florida is like the fifth or sixth. We have a lot of summer rain, so in the summertime we don’t get as much as you would think we would get. But otherwise, other than that we do pretty good.

DB: And where do you rank, do you think as far as the solar industry in Florida compared to other states?

BY: Now? Maybe like 15 or 20.

DB: So why do you think that is? That seems very curious to me.

BY: Do I want to talk about that?

DB: Yeah, I think it’s a good story maybe.

BY: I think Florida has, it’s my opinion that Florida has too many tourists and retirees who hang out in Florida for other purposes other than raising their families and therefore efficiency and solar and things like that don’t fit into their budgets or mentality. We have Disney World there and all the tourist resorts are crazy and so therefore I think it’s that mentality that keeps us from being number 1 or up there with the top guys.

DB: And are there regulatory reasons too?

BY: We were one of the first states to have a law that says you can’t deny solar access. We were one of the first states to do that. We were a trend setter in many ways that other states followed behind us because of the solar energy center. There’s 11 or so states that have energy centers. We were one of the official first ones, besides the federal government with the national labs. North Carolina has one and some of the other states have energy centers and they kind of followed us and so we were a trend-setter in many ways. One of the things we did in trend-setting was, the Department of Transportation, the Florida Department of Transportation came to us and said, we have all these signs and billboards and big equipment with lights and equipment on it and they’re powered by generators. Can we turn them into solar and so we had a five year project to evaluate and test and design and create standards for the Department of Transportation equipment to go from gasoline generators to solar. And then we published a user’s manual on that and other states followed us. So that is another area that we were first in and other people followed us.

DB: And you see a lot of these everywhere now.

BY: Yeah, no one uses generators as far as I know for transportation equipment.

DB: That’s a pretty big win too probably, you know the amount of pollution that you’re creating just burning a diesel generator for a flashing highway sign.

BY: It’s a big waste of energy but the biggest thing is you don’t have to fuel it. You don’t have to go by once or twice a day and fuel that piece of equipment. You just put it out there and it just works. That’s one of the major things about solar, its reliability. The Coast Guard was the first to take that on besides the space program, I mean PV really started for the space program to put a satellite out there to power it with a solar system that needs to be able to withstand all kinds of environmental, atmospheric harshness. And then the Coast Guard looked at that and says, well we can put that on buoys and lights and stuff. If it’s reliable to be in space it’s reliable enough to be on a buoy. And then the Department of Transportation said, “well if these two guys can do it, we think that’s good too. If they think it’s reliable, cost effective and good products then, see so it has expanded and that’s where it comes from. Other organizations look at it and say, “yeah, that fits my need too.” And now it’s become mainstream so that’s pretty impressive over the years that the center’s been there and since 1990 since I started there at the energy center that’s become mainstream now.

DB: Yeah, it does seem to become more and more common to see solar panels in a lot of different places. My family and I went on a vacation in Florida a couple of weeks ago and I was kind of hoping to see a lot of solar panels on people’s roof around the beach. And I was sad that I didn’t see that. I saw one house. It was like a brand new beach house. It was gigantic and they had this huge big solar array and I think that was it. And it seems unfortunate because the people living right by the beach, their homes are going to be some of the first that are hit as sea level starts to rise

BY: Well if you were on vacation maybe you didn’t notice the billboards.

DB: I did see that every billboard had solar panels.

BY: In Florida we’re structured in a way, other states are too, not all but some states, they have an energy center for research and they have an administration department that does the contracts and policy. So in Tallahassee there’s the energy office, which does policy and things like that and then we do the research. So the policy office who controls the money from Tallahassee, general revenues and other funds, somebody put a request in to put a megawatt of solar on billboards and had them grid-tied. And so they did that, and so they put a thousand watts on a thousand billboards so they have a megawatt of PV out there to offset the energy that’s being used by the billboards.

DB: And probably that’s more than enough for the billboards so that’s benefitting the grid.

BY: Yeah, it’s benefitting the grid and it helps everybody and you see the exposure out there and it gets more people with applications and needs experiencing it so that they buy into it.

DB: When I was seeing the solar panels on the billboards I assumed that they were battery-based. I didn’t realize they were grid-tied.

BY: Well there are some. But that was a project that they took two years to do and if you saw them before two years ago they would probably have batteries to them. And they’ve done a number of them that way. It’s just that you had maybe a hundred or two, not a thousand like this program put on.

DB: Are there any political groups that are trying to kind of attaching and trying to chip away at the solar incentives that you have now?

BY: Some people are. Some of the bigger utilities are feeling that it’s cutting into their profits. Some of the bigger utilities feel that they should be doing it all and not anybody else just because that’s their mission in life and for their stockholders. They’re supposed to generate electricity so anybody else is competition for their marketplace. So you see some pushback. It took them a long time to buy into it. And so we had a number of installations done and they watched and we did studies with them and research and did reports on what it’s doing and they did some demonstration projects of their own, like Florida Power and Light put 10 megawatts on the Kennedy Space Center and they put some on their facility down in Indian town. And so you’ve seen the last five or six years, the utilities buying and setting up and getting their own personal experience with megawatt systems and it then becomes this are they going to do it or are they going to let somebody else do it. And so among their stockholders and their management they have to decide that so there’s a little war going over that. I guess you could say they’re pushing for net metering to go away so that they can make more money. But my opinion is the homeowner, if he’s going to make energy, then he should be able to use it himself. So there’s two issues there. Can a business, or residence or commercial building buy and sell and be like a utility? And net-metering is a means for getting paid for the energy that you’re putting back on the grid. And the deal is whether you’re doing avoided cost which is what it costs to make or retail price so there’s a war over that. And the other issue is whether a person, a resident, or a commercial building can sell it. Right now there’s a law in Florida that says the only people or organizations that can sell power are commercial licensed utilities. And so there’s a push on now that places like Wal-Mart or IKEA or any business that has a big roof they could put a megawatt on there and sell the energy back out to the utility. So now there’s a war over who’s allowed to be a utility or not. Right now the big utilities that are licensed utilities are but now there’s these other people who’ve gotten into it who want to be like a utility. And so now there’s a war over what can you be and who can do what.

DB: It might take a few years for this to settle out. Would you say?

BY: Yeah. I would think so. I’ve watched solar come and go in the 30 years I’ve been doing it. I first did it in 1980 for General Electric. I designed a half megawatt power plant for them and was part of a team that we did in Shenandoah, Georgia. So in the late 70s and 80s a lot of solar was done because of the energy crisis and then it kind of died until the middle 90s and it spurred back so I watched it grow and die and grow and die. So it goes through these cycles of up and down. So you have different ways of approaching it but I think it now has become mainstream and it’s taken 30 years to do that.

DB: And coal has started to decline a bit.

BY: The environment of what we have to breathe and the mercury and other waste that comes off it, what do you do with that. That’s the wonderful thing about solar is that it’s clean. And most of the waste that comes off of it can be reprocessed. There’s very little that you can’t do much with. But a big thing is you don’t have to buy fuel. The only problem with it it takes a lot of area and it only works during the day. So you have ways of storing it in batteries. So I think the design that’s been pushed out there is distributed generation, being sustainable and residual so you can design your system in a hybrid form so that you can balance storage with generation and your power plants can run at night more and let the solar take the demand off the day and demand side management loads during the day that solar can offset and now that the solar is so cheap it makes it cheaper to deal with the demand side management than it did before.

DB: What was your degree in?

BY: I went to the University of Central Florida and got a degree in Electrical Engineering.

DB: That sounds like a pretty fun career really and building a system that big for GE, like in 1980, that must have been a pretty big system at that time.

BY: Yes, half a megawatt back them was pretty big. Most of the stuff back then was residential. They did go and do some commercial things. The Department of Energy was pushing to do a lot of things because of the high cost of oil back then. I mean it may be a little cheaper than now but the cost at the time, gasoline was 60 cents a gallon or whatever it was and so therefore it was different. I got my first solar panel that I bought. I got it in 1978 and 5 watts was like $22 a watt. Now you can go buy a 5 watt panel for $1 a watt. So it’s taken 40 years to go from $22 a watt to a dollar a watt. And if people are complaining. “That’s expensive, a dollar a watt, well think about 1978 paying $22 a watt.

DB: Yeah, and it’s not that long ago. And it’s just going to get cheaper and cheaper.

BY: It’s in my lifetime. Well, I don’t know how far down it’s going to go. I don’t have a magic ball to tell.

DB: So what have you been up to since you retired from the Florida Solar Energy Center?

BY: Consulting. I have people who know me from before, doing projects, from before I retired and they call me up and say, “Hey are you still doing something, are you willing to do a project?” And they call me up and so I’ve been freelancing as a consultant here and there. I do a few projects to make sure that I… because I enjoy it. I’m a very lucky person. Not everybody gets to have a job that was their hobby that was their love. And this was my passion and I got paid to do it. So that’s pretty cool. And so there’s people who know what I did and they call me up and “hey do you mind doing something for me?” So I’ve done three or four projects this year.

BY: So that’s what I’m doing. So like here at the ASES conference I’m doing a workshop on using solar in disaster. My dad was a HAM radio operator and he got me to become a HAM radio operator cause that’s electronics. My hobby my passion, my everything it all fell together. I went to Maine.

DB: That sounds like a lot of fun. Have you had a chance to go to any other countries to work with people?

To hear the rest of my conversation with Bill please listen to the episode.

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