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Martin Dyckman: How Florida laws are made and utility regulators are appointed leave the state way behind Germany in use of solar energy

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In Germany two weeks ago, we were impressed by the multitude of solar arrays along the autobahn.

There were too many to count.

They perched on the rooftops of homes, apartment buildings, barns, offices, shops, storage sheds and garages. They were free-standing in cornfields and pastures — any place with a southern exposure and space to spare.

That part of southern Germany gets an average of 1,709 sunlit hours a year, which is barely half that boasted by Miami.

But think hard: How many solar arrays — if any — are in your Florida neighborhood?

In that respect, the self-professed “Sunshine State” might as well be on the dark side of the moon.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Germany generated 31 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, including solar and wind, during the first half of this year. Solar and wind accounted for 17 percent.

Florida, in contrast, gets only 2.2 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, ranking below 15 other states.

The Los Angeles Times recently cited Florida as “one of several states, mostly in the Southeast, that combine copious sunshine with extensive rules designed to block its use by homeowners to generate power.”

Laws to encourage solar energy aren’t being enacted. The Public Service Commission, far from promoting solar power as it ought to do, recently heard requests from Duke Energy and other utilities to actually reduce the state’s feeble energy conservation goals.

Solar won’t happen, as it has in Germany and in other U.S. states, without rules requiring utilities to accept and pay for surplus power. There are companies that specialize in leasing the costly panels to homeowners and businesses, but such plans aren’t viable without mandatory tie-ins to the big utilities.

The utilities complain that it costs money to maintain such connections.

What they don’t say is that if the means of generation — that is, the solar panels — belong to someone else, their value can’t be factored into their rate bases.

Because of the way rates are calculated — essentially guaranteeing a 10 percent profit on investment — there is no incentive for the utilities to consider purchasing solar power.

And because of how Florida laws are made and how the regulators are appointed, nothing is remotely likely to change for the better.

The Public Service Commission functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Florida Legislature, which in turn acts as a wholly owned subsidiary of the utility industries.

Public Service Commission members are nominated by a council dominated by the Legislature. The governor makes the final selection but then the Senate gets to vote on confirmation. Utility lobbyists call the shots at every stage.

Four years ago, after four commissioners had turned down a large rate increase for Florida Power & Light, the Senate vetoed the reappointment of two of them. Then the council refused to renominate the other two, one of whom was a former senator, Nancy Argenziano.

She cites three occasions on which individual legislators threatened to remove her if she didn’t vote as they wished.

The council had its excuses, of course. Try this one: “Temperament.”

There were more pertinent reasons.

According to Integrity Florida, the four largest electric utilities contributed more than $18 million to state candidates and party organizations between 2004 and 2012. Between 2007 and 2014 they employed one lobbyist for every two legislators and spent more than $12 million on lobbying. (Disclosure: I am a former Integrity Florida board member.)

It is an inherent duty of any legislature to make utility laws, but it should not also control the regulators. That owes to a Florida Supreme Court advisory opinion, in 1969, calling regulation a legislative rather than an executive function. The purpose was to exempt the regulators, who were elected then, from a contemplated government overhaul.

The price for switching in 1978 to an appointed commission, considered a reform at the time, was to put the Legislature’s thumbs on the appointment scales.

There have been occasional proposals to elect the commission once again. But in the age of Citizens United, that would simply enable the utilities to bypass their legislative puppets and pick the commissioners directly.

A better model, still far from perfect, would be to put utility regulation under the governor and Cabinet, as banking and insurance already are.

That would necessitate a constitutional amendment.

Better yet: Buy out the monopolies and run them in the public interest.

It’s hard to imagine the utilities letting any such thing happen.

But wouldn’t it be nice for someone to try?

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.