The Florida Solar Energy Industries Association (FlaSEIA) is voicing the solar industry’s dissatisfaction with the FPL Solar Rebate program. While touted as successful by Florida’s largest utility and a spectacular windfall for a few lucky rebate recipients, the solar rebate program has been disastrous for Florida utility ratepayers, solar energy contractors, and solar suppliers.
Solar Southwest Florida is in receipt of a series of letters between FlaSEIA’s former President, Bill Gallagher, and Florida Power & Light’s Manager of New Product Development, Oscar Gans. The letters detail results from the latest distribution of 2012 rebate funds, FlaSEIA’s position on the rebate program, and FPL’s response. There is some very important and disturbing information contained in the letters, and based on FPL’s response I am not confident that they share the same sense of urgency about the problems with the program.
There are really three overriding factors in this debate over the program in my opinion:
- The flawed reservation system and procedures that creates an unfair playing field for solar contractors and rebate applicants.
- The rebate amount is seriously out of balance with demand for those funds.
- The program does not accomplish the stated goal, which is to increase the number of photovoltaic energy systems installed in the state.
The Reservation System
Case in point for the flawed reservation system is that one contractor was able to secure 27 of the 119 approved rebate applications (23%). The top three contractors accounted for 50% of the approved applications, and the top five hoarded nearly two-thirds. The top four solar contractors for commercial systems garnered 71% of the business, with only seven other contractors securing one or two approvals. Only 26 contractors (out of hundreds of solar and electrical contractors licensed to do installations) were able to secure any rebate approvals.
The reservation system is an online application process that requires the FPL customer to log into their account and enter system details to an online form. In reality, contractors are asking account holders for their account information so they can have employees fill in the technical data required. The application forms go live at 8:30 am on the application date, and then it’s a race to see who can type fastest.
In the last round of funding, the funds were exhausted in under two minutes and further applications were rejected!
How did some contractors fare so much better than others? It is quite apparent that some have figured out how to use form-filling software to quickly enter rebate applications. While that is not cheating, illegal, or immoral in any way, it puts others at a severe disadvantage and give individuals virtually no chance of success in securing their own rebate approval.
Full disclosure to dispel any thoughts that this is just sour grapes: My employer had 11 people frantically entering rebate applications, and we had two people type fast enough to secure approvals, one of which went through with purchasing a system.
There are other problems with the reservation system, like not continuing to take applications after funds are exhausted so that unused funds can go to the next applicant in the queue. Another problem is not requiring that the applicant have serious intentions of actually going forward with an installation. The main problem at this point is the skewed distribution of the funds – the fairness factor. A lottery process has been suggested by others, but that isn’t a process through which industry members can build reliable and predictable sales (read: jobs).
Supply and Demand
Why did the rebate funds run out in under two minutes? Because the rebate amount at $2 per watt is insanely generous in today’s photovoltaic market. It’s no secret that the price of photovoltaic modules themselves is now under $1 per watt. The total installed price being offered by retailers in Florida is well under $6 per watt, and can be under $4 per watt in many circumstances. The combination of a 30% tax credit and the utility rebate exceeding 70% of the remaining cost in many cases makes the return on investment look like stealing power from your neighbor. There is no reasonable financial argument against installing a solar electric system if you are able to secure a rebate for your home or business.
Unfortunately, the rebate funds are limited, so the number of applications approved (119 in the last round) falls grossly short of the demand.
To put things into further perspective, the State of Florida ran a wildly successful $2 per watt rebate program a few years ago when systems were selling at $8-$10 per watt retail price. Because of the plummeting cost of photovoltaic panels and components over the last few years, it is now cheaper to buy a system without rebates than it was a few years ago with rebates. Even at “those prices” a $2 per watt rebate amount was so successful that the State ran out of funds and ultimately paid many people just 52 cents on the dollar. On a good note, the FPL program guarantees that approved applications will be paid as long as the program standards are met.
The bottom line is that the rebate amount is far too generous. People are reluctant to install a system without rebates when their neighbor received a $20,000 handout from the utility. They are far more likely to roll the dice in the next round of funding and hope for a windfall.
Other states and utilities offer far less generous rebate programs and are seeing huge levels of solar energy adoption. For example, Arizona utilities offer rebates in the range of 20 to 50 cents per watt. The programs are wildly successful and at least one utility has exhausted funding for this year.
You will see in the letters that FPL spent $3 million advertising the solar rebate program. It clearly did not need to be advertised. This amount put toward actually installing solar energy systems would have resulted in 1.5 megawatts of additional capacity for ratepayers, and far more if the rebate amount was in line with demand.
The stated goal of the FPL Solar Rebate Program is to increase the adoption of distributed solar energy installation in the state of Florida. This rebate program is effectively capping the installed capacity in FPL’s service area, having the exact opposite effect! If $4.5 million is actually reaching ratepayers as noted in FlaSEIA’s letter, then simple math indicates that 2.25 megawatts of capacity will be installed. As stated above, and proven by ample anecdotal evidence, other ratepayers are not going to proceed without a rebate if they know a rebate program is in place.
To put this in perspective, the state of New Jersey saw 173.8 megawatts of capacity installed in the first quarter of 2012 alone.
Statistically, Florida fell to 17th among states in 2011 for total installed solar electric capacity, down from 8th place, right at the time that FPL’s rebate program came into existence. In the first quarter of 2012, the total capacity installed in Florida was a paltry 2.8 megawatts. This was 14th among states, and only 1.8% of the amount of solar capacity installed in the top ranked state, New Jersey.
FlaSEIA recommends that the rebate amount be reduced to 50 cents per watt, which would result in a four-fold increase in the capacity installed. I believe a more aggressive reduction is in order – 25 cents per watt. I truly believe that and eight-fold increase in installed capacity is possible with today’s current retail price of solar photovoltaic systems and a 25 cent per watt rebate. Furthermore, a small rebate amount will not dissuade ratepayers who are not lucky enough to obtain an approved rebate application.
The FPL Solar Rebate Program is clearly flawed. FlaSEIA, with its limited funding and power, is admirably taking the industry’s complaints to FPL and the Public Service Commission. Moreover, this is a battle for the Florida electricity ratepayer who is willing and able to install a solar photovoltaic system, but is stymied by the process and conflicted over whether to proceed without a rebate handout. The fact of the matter is that Floridians were installing solar energy systems in larger quantities while systems were sold at higher net costs before the rebate program came into existence.
Am I asking for the rebate program to go away? Certainly not. I do believe utility rebates encourage the adoption of solar energy. Unfortunately, because of the way this program is being administered, and the supply and demand being so far out of whack, FPL’s implementation is having disastrous results on the industry (jobs), and is having the direct opposite effect as the stated goal.
The series of letters can be viewed here: