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Orlando commissioner fights city's solar energy utility – Orlando Sentinel

The solar panels on Patty Sheehan's roof usually generate enough electricity for her modest home and often a little more to feed into the power lines, reducing her electric bill from $100 to almost nothing.

Last week, Orlando's utility announced a plan to upend that happy arrangement for Sheehan and thousands of other solar customers: It would drastically reduce the value of the extra electricity generated by their solar panels.

Sheehan is the longest-serving member of the Orlando City Council and is known for her heated moments, but those pale in comparison to what is coming next.

“Every time I meet with them, the proposal gets worse and is more punitive to customers who generate solar power,” Sheehan said in a letter she sent to the Orlando Utility Commissioners, bypassing the intransigent OUC leaders she has met with several times. “I will not back down from a bully,” Sheehan added in an interview.

Orlando City Council member Patty Sheehan is opposing plans by the city's utility to cut the amount it pays for the extra electricity generated by solar panels on her home (seen here) and thousands of other homes in the city. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

For those who pay little attention to their monthly bills and know little about solar energy, the growing conflict may sound trivial or opaque.

But it's a blow to the heart of Orlando's urban identity, a city that proudly presents itself as a leader in the fight against climate change by focusing on efficiency, sustainability and a near-total reliance on solar power in the not-too-distant future. Should a city that has embraced this ethos take a step so unfriendly to solar power users?

The dispute also touches on the feeling that many residents, including Sheehan, have a right and a responsibility: to provide as much carbon-free electricity as possible as quickly as possible in the face of the worsening climate crisis.

City Hall and the OUC are working closely together to eliminate climate-warming pollution from fossil fuels.

“We understand that this proposal may raise concerns among customers who use solar on their roofs,” said Mindy Brenay, the utility's chief financial officer. “That's why we recommend a balanced approach that recognizes the contribution of solar on their roofs while ensuring that everyone has access to affordable electricity.”

Traditionally, OUC and utilities across the country purchase their customers' excess solar power at the same price at which they sell the power to customers.

This practice is called net metering, and it has drawn the ire of many utility companies, who claim that customers who install solar panels lower their monthly electricity bills while doing little to maintain utility infrastructure—poles, lines, transformers, substations, power plants, and more.

Florida lawmakers sought to eliminate net metering for large shareholder-owned utilities, including Duke and Florida Power & Light, in 2022.

Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed the bill, saying, “The state of Florida should not contribute to the financial crisis our citizens are currently experiencing.”

Now, in its efforts to phase out net metering, the municipal utility company OUC argues that the practice shifts costs onto customers without solar power. This is unfair, the utility claims.

OUC covers Orlando, part of Orange County and St. Cloud and has about 248,000 residential electricity customers. Of those, 9,800, or four percent, have rooftop solar systems. Almost all use net metering.

According to OUC, by the end of this year, utility customers without solar will have paid a total of $9 million, or an average of $3 per person, to cover infrastructure costs incurred by, but not paid by, customers with rooftop solar. OUC expects these numbers to steadily rise.

Solar energy advocates say OUC ignores important issues.

As with OUC, proponents say residents of solar systems incur costs for purchasing, financing and maintenance that are not taken into account by OUC.

And beyond providing electricity, rooftop solar panels reduce the OUC's expensive burden of having to build power plants, proponents claim.

Sheehan supports an OUC fee set at a rate that ensures residents with solar panels on their roofs pay a fair share of infrastructure costs. The OUC proposal is exploitative, she said.

The municipal utility sells the electricity to residents for 11 cents per 1,000 watts of electricity consumption per hour.

This is also the amount that OUC credits for excess electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. OUC wants to reduce this amount to four cents per 1,000 watts per hour.

“This is legalized robbery,” Sheehan said, outraged that OUC will profit by reselling the electricity to its neighbors for 11 cents. At the same time, she said, her investment in rooftop solar panels is gone.

Orlando City Councilwoman Patty Sheehan installed solar panels on her home about five years ago, which has brought her electricity bill down to almost nothing. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)
Orlando City Councilwoman Patty Sheehan installed solar panels on her home about five years ago, which has brought her electricity bill down to almost nothing. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Because she's a city councilor, Sheehan has the advantage of getting early notice of the changes OUC is proposing. Others – from homeowners to environmental groups – are eager to learn more.

The Sierra Club submitted a formal request to OUC for information on its proposed rate changes. The utility has scheduled a review of that information during a workshop with presentations and public comment on Thursday.

Other proposed tariff changes are also expected to be discussed on Thursday, including an increase in electricity prices during times of peak demand.

Heaven Campbell, Florida program director for Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit that helps homeowners install solar power on their roofs, said the OUC's initial arguments on net metering are telling. “They're using the word equity as a weapon to justify change,” she said.

Among City Council members and OUC commissioners, Sheehan is an expert on rooftop solar panels and is well-informed about their cost, wattage and potential to help her keep her retirement financially viable.

She has owned her two-bedroom bungalow in Colonialtown for 30 years, and about five years ago she decided to renovate her home, redesigning the kitchen while keeping social aspects in mind.

Sheehan borrowed nearly $20,000 to cover her roof with solar panels and participated in a city program that encouraged and facilitated the use of solar energy. The arrangement was based on a clear calculation: Sheehan could use the money she would otherwise have spent on electric bills to pay off the system on her roof instead[a common arrangement for those who adopt solar energy].[einegängigeVereinbarungfürdiejenigendieaufSolarenergieumsteigen[acommonarrangementforthosewhoadoptsolar

“I am deeply offended that I am being told I am rich and privileged because I have solar panels,” Sheehan said in her letter to OUC commissioners. “I am a public servant who wanted to set an example of responsible stewardship of our environment.”

And while the OUC is now agonizing over what to do with citizens who use solar power, the world is in the grip of a Level Five climate fire, Sheehan noted.

The National Weather Service underlined this with its climate report for May in the Orlando area: May was the hottest month since weather records began.

According to the weather service, Orlando had 26 days with temperatures of 90 degrees or more, beating the previous record of 24 days set in 1975 and 1933.

For the entire planet, every month since June last year has been the warmest on record.

kspear@orlandosentinel.com

Anna Harden

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