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States' solar fights pinpoint tensions between environmentalists and utility companies

The Climate 202

Good morning! This is Vanessa Montalbano, the Climate 202 researcher, taking over and writing the top of the newsletter today. We know you enjoy our viral videos of cute animals at the bottom of each edition — have any contenders? Send them here: vanessa.montalbano@washpost.com 

States' solar fights pinpoint tensions between environmentalists and utility companies

Lawmakers in Florida are clamping down on solar incentives for homeowners, escalating a years-long fight between clean energy advocates and politically powerful utility companies. 

The move could mark a push from utility companies and some lawmakers to ensure that the industry maintains dominance amid a transition to independent clean energy and an energy crisis spurred by Russian aggression in Ukraine. 

The bill would target net-metering, a billing mechanism that allows solar customers to sell excess electricity back to the grid and receive a credit from utilities. In return, solar customers receive a much lower electricity bill. 

But environmentalists argue that slashing net-metering legislation kills future motivation for consumers to choose solar and could further derail President Biden’s climate agenda. 

There will be fewer people investing in solar and those states lose the benefits of cleaner air and climate solutions, along with fewer construction jobs and small businesses,” Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email to The Climate 202. 

Solar in the Sunshine State

State lawmakers in Florida last month approved a bill that would reduce rooftop solar energy buybacks by 75 percent, compared to the previous dollar-to-dollar rate. 

Florida Power and Light, the largest utility company in Florida and one of the driving forces behind the legislation, argues that net-metering drives up costs for customers who choose not to install panels on their roofs. 

“We support all types of solar. And, we believe all types of solar play a role in combating climate change," utility spokesman Christopher McGrath told The Climate 202. “However, customers should not be forced to pay extra on their electric bill for someone else’s private solar panels, which is what happens today in Florida.” The utility serves 5.7 million homes, roughly 0.5 percent of which have rooftop solar panels. 

While Florida is one of the fastest-growing states for solar energy, most of the growth is at the utility scale rather than customer owned. McGrath said Florida Power alone has 50 solar power plants in operation — providing solar energy to 750,000 customers — with plans for more by 2025. The utility also just opened the world’s biggest solar-powered battery in southeast Tampa, which he said “allows us to deliver solar energy to customers even when the sun’s not shining.”

The rooftop solar industry, however, is private and relies on mom-and-pop stores for installation. 

Heaven Campbell, the Florida program director at Solar United Neighbors, said the battle over net-metering is at an “implosion point” in the state. 

“This is about energy equity, energy justice and energy security,” she said. “You don't get to take away people's own sense of security and their own customer choice, especially within their own private property.” 

Other solar industry experts agreed. 

  • Will Giese, southeast regional director for the Solar Energy Industries Association called the bill “a nightmare for anyone who believes in energy freedom,” adding that “strengthening our energy independence at the national, local, and individualized level is more important now than ever before.”

The bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is expected to sign, would go into effect Jan.1, 2024. 

Meanwhile in California, a vote from the California Public Utilities Commission on whether to get rid of the net-metering process is still weeks away after being put on hold in January.  

Similar net-metering legislation is also being debated in North Carolina and Michigan

On the Hill

According to McGrath, the legislation aims “to modernize the state’s outdated net-metering rule” that he said causes the majority of Floridians who don’t have rooftop solar to pay a combined $30 million extra annually on their electric bills to fund credits “in support of those who do.” As the solar industry grows, he said that cost could rise to $80 million by 2025. 

But House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Chair Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said the opposite. 

“We in the Sunshine State are blessed with abundant affordable solar energy from the sun,” she told The Climate 202. Yet “we import gas to fuel our homes and power our air conditioners and that's hurting us in a number of other ways,” citing how continued greenhouse gas emissions increase climate-fueled costs to infrastructure and property insurance in the state. 

Castor said the Florida legislature has yet to set a clean energy standard or goals for energy efficiency, making it “a whole lot more expensive for consumers,” she said, adding: “It's a great deal for the shareholders, and the bottom lines of our electric utilities. They call the shots. They make the profits, they pass along the higher cost of energy to consumers.”

In January and February, Castor led a group of Florida Democrats in Congress who sent letters to the state legislature urging lawmakers not to pass the legislation. 

Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who joined Castor in the letter, said that “At a time when Floridians' utility bills are at an all-time high, it makes no sense to be making rooftop solar more expensive for Floridians,” in an email to The Climate 202. “Russia's war in Ukraine is making it crystal clear why we need energy independence, and in the Sunshine State, we should be doing all we can to harness our most abundant resource — the sun."

Pressure points

Biden expected to announce massive release of oil reserves

The White House is expected to call for the release of 1 million barrels per day from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve on an ongoing basis for several months to tackle high gas prices, according to two people familiar with the matter, The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager and Jeff Stein report.

The nation is coordinating the release with the International Energy Agency and has told allies and partners about the initiative one of the people said. It was not immediately clear how the potential release of oil reserves would affect prices, as the country previously imported roughly 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Russia. 

After the invasion of Ukraine, Biden banned all imports of Russian gas and oil. Patrick De Haan, a policy analyst at GasBuddy, said the Biden administration may be running the risk of drawing down emergency reserves too quickly — leaving the United States in the lurch should, say, a natural disaster force a decline in domestic production.

Biden to use Defense Production Act to boost critical mineral supply

President Biden is considering invoking the Defense Production Act as soon as this week to spur production of critical minerals used in electric vehicle batteries and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign supply chains, according to an official familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it hasn't been formally announced, The Washington Post's Steven Mufson and Paulina Villegas report.

Biden's likely presidential determination would not include loans or direct purchases of minerals such as lithium, nickel, graphite, cobalt and manganese. The funding would instead cover feasibility studies and productivity modernizations, the official said, adding that production would occur under strong environmental and labor standards as well as through tribal engagements.

Some congressional Democrats, however, urged Biden not to encourage more mining because of its potential environmental consequences.

“We share the administration’s goal of sourcing materials needed for our clean energy future in a way that is responsible and sustainable," House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) said in a statement. "Fast-tracking mining under antiquated standards that put our public health, wilderness, and sacred sites at risk of permanent damage just isn’t the answer.”

Rich Nolan, president and chief executive of the National Mining Association, cheered Biden's expected move, saying it would shore up the minerals supply chain.

On the Hill

Democrats push tax on big oil companies' 'windfall' profits

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) on Wednesday sought to drum up support for their legislation to tax the "windfall" profits that big oil companies have reaped amid rising crude prices sparked by the war in Ukraine.

At a news conference on Capitol Hill, the Democrats argued that the Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax Act would combat "war profiteering" by oil companies while addressing Americans' pain at the pump. The legislation would slap a 50 percent tax on profits that oil companies earn above a $66-per-barrel price — the average price from 2015 through 2019 — and send half of that revenue to taxpayers. 

Whitehouse told reporters after the event that he thinks the bill could pass as part of President Biden's stalled social spending bill or a broader Ukraine aid package. But he acknowledged that "one or two" Senate Democrats may not support the measure — an apparent reference to Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

The other co-sponsors and speakers at the news conference included Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.).

Agency alert

Biden administration plans additional funding for energy-efficient homes

The Biden administration on Wednesday laid out plans to spend nearly $3.2 billion to modernize hundreds of thousands of homes in low-income communities, aiming to cut Americans’ energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions, Anna Phillips reports for The Post. 

The new funding comes from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law last year, with the intention of boosting the federal Weatherization Assistance Program. Biden officials said the new funding will reach 450,000 households total — a steep jump from the 38,000 it currently serves. 

Its aims include adding insulation to attics, swapping out older appliances with more efficient models, and replacing leaky windows or doors. The funding can also help homeowners switch from gas- or oil-burning furnaces and air conditioners to electric heat pumps, helping to reduce the nation's use of fossil fuels. 

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm emphasized the potential cost savings, noting that the program has lowered some families’ power bills by as much as 30 percent.

“For some people, these might seem like small changes, but actually they make a big and immediate impact,” Granholm said.

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