US solar FiTs under fire following Florida tariff suspension

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Pro-solar group the Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) has questioned the viability of the feed-in tariff (FiT) model for residential solar in the US following the suspension of a FiT scheme in Gainesville, Florida.

Gainesville’s seven-man City Commission voted five-to-two in favour of suspending the FiT programme in the week leading up to Christmas 2013. The programme offered 20-year tariffs for PV installations in three classes ranging from installations of less than 10kW capacity, up to 1,000kW.

According to local news sources, commissioner Todd Chase said that extra solar generating capacity was not needed by the municipal utility the commission represented, that customers did not need it and that it was not needed on the grid. Commissioner Chase also cited the city’s high utilities rates and the fact that the city had already met set carbon reduction targets early in 2012 in his argument for suspending the programme.

TASC, which focuses its activities on the residential market, is strongly in favour of net metering programmes of the type which exists in 43 US states, in contrast to its stance on FiT programmes.

In an interview with PV Tech, TASC co-chair Bryan Miller said that the “failure” of the Gainesville FiT, which was introduced in 2009, was “a real moment that FiT advocates are going to have to explain”. Miller is also vice president of public policy and power markets at residential installer SunRun.

Miller said: “I think this is a big moment in the sweep of renewable [energy] discussions that have been going on for years on whether feed-in tariffs or net metering is the right way to go. The Gainesville FiT has received an enormous amount of press over the years and has often been presented by FiT advocates as the ‘model policy’ – and the Gainesville FiT is now gone.

“What’s happened is exactly what those of us on the other side of this issue have warned about: FiTs are not stable. They are subject to constant manipulation by utilities and unelected bureaucrats. You can’t build businesses around environments like that. Solar installers in Gainesville don’t have businesses this morning and that’s as real as it gets in terms of the impact of public policy.”

Miller went on to say that TASC was not against the principle of FiTs as a means of “jump-starting” the solar market.

“I want to be very clear that FiTs served a role in history; there was a time when they jump-started the market. They were the foundation of the modern PV market, we’re not disputing that. German and western European FiTs created a demand signal that allowed manufacturers to scale up. The fact is we’ve moved beyond the place where we need overpay for solar to get solar built,” he said.

When asked to respond to commissioner Todd Chase’s comment that the power was not needed on the grid or to meet carbon dioxide reduction targets Miller said it was an “honest comment” from the commission’s point of view but also explained why he and TASC felt it exemplified some of the problems with residential FiT programmes for the US market.

“That comment gets to the fundamental problem with FiTs. Instead of people being able to serve their own load, be their own power company, to generate power to use in their own house, everything has to be under these handcuffs of what the utility wants, what the utility is willing to buy. It takes away the right of people to build power for their own consumption. A FiT says you have to sell all your energy to the utility. That’s not an American way of doing business. We have a long history of self-reliance and that’s why net metering is the American Way.”

On the subject of the carbon dioxide reduction targets being met early Miller said: “The bureaucrats have come up with another reason – artificial regulatory constraints – why they don’t want people to generate solar. What’s missing from that logic entirely is the right of people to generate their own power. When people are generating their own power they’re not basing it off utility procurement targets or carbon reduction targets.

“Gainesville would’ve benefited from a net metering programme. Let’s look at the whole of Florida. They’re called the ‘Sunshine State’. Florida politicians should do one of two things: they should decide to do more solar and adopt policies that will allow that, or they should change the nickname of the state, they should do one of the two.”

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