Florida Power & Light (FPL) on March 3 received approval from state regulators to launch the nation’s largest community solar program. FPL’s $1.8 billion SolarTogether project will more than double the amount of available community solar power nationwide.

The program, unanimously approved Tuesday by the Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC), adds almost 1.5 GW of solar power generation capacity across the state. It includes 20 solar arrays, each with about 74.5 MW of generation capacity—just below the 75-MW threshold that would require more regulatory oversight of the projects. The new projects are all expected to come online over the next year.

“This program represents significant forward progress for the solar landscape of not only Florida, but the entire United States,” said Eric Silagy, president and CEO of FPL, on Tuesday. “For years, access to solar energy for many Floridians was not economical or easily accessible. Now, FPL SolarTogether will provide more of our customers access to the environmental and financial benefits of solar generation regardless of where they live or how much money they make while helping increase fuel diversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and launch Florida into a leadership position for solar energy.”

The program reserves 75% of the power produced for commercial and industrial (C&I) customers in Florida, with 25% of the electricity reserved for the residential sector. FPL plans to open enrollment on March 17.

FPL said SolarTogether is the first large community solar program to focus on both C&I and residential customers. The utility said the program has received interest from more than 150,000 residential and C&I customers who want to offset some or all of their electricity use with solar power.

Ken Pedotto, CEO of Solar Simplified, a company that supports community solar initiatives, in a recent interview with POWER said commercial and industrial customers are looking for ways to support renewable energy and make their business more sustainable. “Businesses need to consider all stakeholders [employees, investors, customers] and how important the goals are to them. Additionally, working toward being a more sustainable business can be an extremely attractive incentive when firms are looking to acquire top-end talent, plus, it’s just the right thing to do. Businesses need to think longer-term—the ‘payback period’ can be decades-long, but it will ultimately save them money as well as helping them better the environment.”

Program Support

Several Florida cities and counties have thrown their support behind the project, which also is backed by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Vote Solar, and other groups. Some of the state’s largest employers, including Walmart and 7-Eleven, also support the program.

“Long gone are the days when electricity was simply a commodity and customers weren’t focused on the source of power generation. Now, with climate change at the forefront of many conversations, FPL SolarTogether allows customers interested in advancing solar energy to be in control of their energy sources,” said Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, in a news release. “The Commission’s unanimous approval of the largest community solar program in the country will help propel Florida to the next level of solar leadership. FPL’s innovative SolarTogether program will provide access to low-cost solar energy for families and businesses across our state that want to make a real difference in tackling climate change by adopting clean, renewable sources of power. We look forward to continuing to work with FPL as the company moves forward with the launch of this groundbreaking program.”

There are groups concerned about the project being totally built by FPL. FPSC staff recently issued a 46-page document that recommended regulators reject the project, citing concerns about the way the program is structured and its different impacts on FPL customers. The state’s Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues, has opposed the project.

“To be clear, citizens are in favor of solar and bona fide plans to improve Florida’s environmental condition; however, citizens do not favor forcing the vast majority of customers to fund vanity projects and take on all risks of those projects which primarily benefit only a few participants,” the Office of Public Counsel argued in a brief filed at the commission.

Payments and Credits

Adopting the program means FPL customers could voluntarily pay more on their electric bills to finance the projects. Those customers then would receive credits that would enable them to receive a “payback” in about seven years.

FPL has said SolarTogether is a response to customers who want to support the growth of renewable energy, but may not want to install solar panels on their homes.

“A growing number of FPL’s 5 million customers want to make a tangible difference in the world by sourcing their power consumption from renewable sources while also participating in solar’s increasingly favorable economics,” the utility said in a brief filed last month. “SolarTogether makes that possible. By making relatively modest monthly payments, participants may subscribe to blocks of capacity generated by the program-dedicated, cost-effective solar facilities, and they can claim the associated environmental attributes.”

FPL in a news release Tuesday said the program is “a response to increased customer demand for alternative ways to receive the financial and environmental benefits of solar generation—leading to a reduced carbon footprint and lower energy bills.” The utility said “FPL SolarTogether removes traditional barriers such as large upfront costs, no long-term commitment, no penalty for leaving and the program can move with you, providing a cost-effective, hassle-free way to go solar.”

“SolarTogether opens the door to a greener energy future that comes with cost savings that low-income households need now more than ever,” said Katie Chiles Ottenweller, the Southeast U.S. director of Vote Solar. “Clean energy solutions to keep bills affordable will mean more Floridians who are struggling to make ends meet can go to bed at night with one less thing to worry about.” Vote Solar has estimated that the 37.5 MW of generation capacity reserved to help low-income families will help participants save $1,300 over the life of the program.

Costs and Financial Risks

FPSC staff members and the Office of Public Counsel have said the program would have costs and financial risks for most of the utility’s customers who do not participate in the program. They cited, as an example, how credits received by those participating in SolarTogether would come from money that all FPL customers pay to cover the utility’s fuel expenses.

“The commission approved the settlement agreement [between FPL, Walmart, and the other supporting groups] because this unique solar program is in the public interest of the state of Florida and offers FPL customers the opportunity to advance renewable energy in Florida,” commission Chairman Gary Clark said in a prepared statement after Tuesday’s vote. “The new solar additions will serve to reduce the risk of higher fuel and emissions costs for all FPL ratepayers.”

The commission staff recommendation to reject the program, issued Feb. 21, said the proposal would “authorize FPL to accelerate the construction of solar facilities and to add future solar facilities based upon the utility’s marketing efforts and the desires of a select group of customers rather than adding generating units to satisfy projected reliability or economic needs for all customers.”

FPL on Tuesday said the “innovative program is expected to generate $249 million in net cost savings for both participants and the general body of customers. In fact, FPL’s general body of customers are expected to save about $112 million over the life of the solar plants.”

“By unanimously approving FPL SolarTogether – the largest shared solar program in the country – the FPSC has, once again, reminded the world that Florida is committed to leading by example when it comes to adapting to changing times and meeting customers’ needs while taking a long-term view to keep costs down,” said Silagy. “In addition to providing unprecedented solar access to customers who choose to participate in the voluntary program, FPL SolarTogether will help keep the air clean and bills low for all of our customers as we march toward installing more than 30 million solar panels by 2030.”

Other utilities are looking at similar “green tariff” solar offerings in Florida and other states. Tampa Electric Co. (TECO), which serves customers in the western part of the state, and Duke Energy’s Florida group have both looked at community solar programs. Georgia Power has a 1-GW program being considered by state regulators. Duke Energy has a 600-MW program in North Carolina.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).