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Florida fails to ask for federal funds to help poor people buy solar panels


Did you hear the circus is back?

The Ellenton-based impresarios at Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey have returned to the road with a retooled Greatest Show on Earth. They’re bringing back most of their colorful acts — the trapeze performers, the tightrope walkers, the human cannonballs. But the revived show lacks both animals and one major artist category:

Clowns. They were deemed too scary.

Fortunately, I know the perfect place for all those unemployed Bozos to land: Tallahassee.

They’ll fit right in! Our state government is already awash in Krusty-wannabes. For proof, I refer you to this headline from the Orlando Sentinel last week: “Florida leaders pass on Biden’s solar panels for low-income families.”

Florida, you may have heard, calls itself “The Sunshine State.” Yet Florida is also one of just six states that failed to apply for funds from the federal government’s $7 billion “Solar for All” pot.

The other states that didn’t apply were such hip locales as Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and South Dakota. You know, places that are JUST as vibrant and people-packed as Florida.

What’s “Solar for All,” you ask?

I am sad to report that it has nothing to do with Publix offering a BOGO on six-packs of Sunny D. No, Solar for All is part of the poorly named Inflation Reduction Act’s many, many climate-change-fighting programs.

For instance, the Inflation Reduction Act provided $350 million in energy efficiency incentives to Floridians. Or it would have, except Gov. Ron “Why Is Everyone Staring At My $700 Boots?” DeSantis rejected the feds’ funds with zero explanation.

In the case of Solar for All, it’s a pool of money from which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to make 60 awards that will provide from $25 million to $400 million to states, local governments, Native American tribes, and nonprofit groups.

The intention is to assist homeowners unable to afford to install solar panels on their own. You can see why Florida officials declined to participate. Help poor people AND the environment? That is SO not our brand these days.

Rep. Darren Soto, via his Facebook page

“This is just hurting poor people,” said U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, who has been critical of DeSantis’ rejection of the energy-rebate funds.

As with the energy efficiency rejection, Florida’s failure to apply for the Solar for All money came with zero explanation. But this time, there’s a twist. The Sentinel reported that DeSantis’ office referred questions about it to a different state official, whom I will get to in a minute.

A lot of experts I consulted told me they believed there was some dark political calculation behind this, a deliberate choice by a politician who supports the fossil fuel industry no matter what.

“It’s consistent with the recent veto,” said Dawn Shirreffs, Florida director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Center at the University of Central Florida, via UCF

“Anything that comes out of the Biden administration gets rejected by the DeSantis administration,” said Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Center at the University of Central Florida. “It’s just the reality of what we’re dealing with here in Florida.”

“It appeared to me to be a failure of Florida leadership,” said Bryan Jacob, the solar energy director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

But what if it’s NOT an intentional act by DeSantis?

The attempt to direct all questions away from our nationally ambitious governor has me wondering: What if it wasn’t a political decision after all?

What if it was just an instance of flat out, fumble-footed Florida incompetence?

A fortune from sunshine

In spite of our sunny nickname, solar has had a rough time gaining traction here.

Just last year, when Florida Power & Light wanted to hobble the state’s rooftop solar industry because the utility couldn’t control it, the company drafted an anti-solar bill. The bill would have killed net-metering, which allows users to sell power back to the grid.

An FPL lobbyist handed the bill to a subservient lawmaker to file as the “sponsor,” along with a $10,000 contribution to her PAC. The bill passed both houses by wide margins, despite being wildly unpopular with the public.

Fortunately, DeSantis, concerned about his reelection and presidential campaign, vetoed it, citing the cost to the average homeowner.

While our politicians might not appreciate it, solar is extremely popular with the voters. In 2016, a proposed constitutional amendment to provide property tax breaks for people who install solar panels on their homes passed by an overwhelming 73 percent to 27 percent margin.

It’s pretty popular with customers, too. Just last month, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Florida topped all other states for solar energy installations during the first half of 2023. We’re on track to beat California and Texas, the top solar installers of 2021 and 2022, for solar energy capacity increases in the rest of the year.

The most telling sentence in the story was this one:

“Florida’s increase for the first six months exceeded the amount of solar capacity ever installed in the state during an entire year.”

If you wonder why solar has won so many fans, look no further than your most recent power bill. Specifically, look at the rate increases approved by the inaccurately named “Public Service” Commission for customers of Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida, and Tampa Electric Co.

Dawn Shirreffs, Florida director of the Environmental Defense Fund, via EDF

“Seventy-five percent of our power from the utilities relies on natural gas,” Shirreffs told me. “That’s a very expensive source these days.”

Solar promises homeowner's major relief from high power bills — as well as the possibility of a profit from selling power back to the grid.

“It’s getting to the point now that if you’ve got solar panels on your roof, you can make a fortune,” Fenton told me. He also uses solar power to charge his electric car, which he figures costs him the equivalent of 29 cents for a gallon of gas.

The key to raking in this money from the sun is whether you can afford the up-front installation cost. That’s what Solar for All is supposed to help with.

Why some need help

I asked Jacob about the cost of installing solar panels these days. He said it’s cheaper than it was five years ago, although the cost has risen some in the past six months.

The rule of thumb for residential rooftop solar panels is $3 per watt of energy, he said. Thus, if you install a 5 kilowatt system, it will cost you $15,000.

Bryan Jacob of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, via the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

However, he said most rooftop solar installations tend to be slightly larger — 7 or 8 kilowatts. That means they cost $21,000 to $28,000 to install. In other words, about as much as a brand-new Honda Accord, which not a lot of us Floridians can buy without some help.

Those of us with a steady paycheck and solid credit can hit up a bank or credit union for a loan. But you can see why folks in dire financial straits, living hand-to-mouth in the state with the least affordable housing in the U.S., miiiight need help. Hence the Solar for All money.

With the EPA making 60 grants, that should provide enough money for all 50 states plus some for Puerto Rico, some Native American tribes, and a nonprofit or two, he said.

Several nonprofits and municipal utilities are applying for Solar for All grants that could be used by Floridians, he said. That means there’s still a chance that we might see some of those taxpayer dollars helping Floridians seek energy from the sun.

Jacob, in addition to being a solar power expert, is a weightlifter who’s competed in two Olympics and medaled at the Pan American Games. I couldn’t resist asking him if poor Floridians hoping for help from the Solar for All pot are asking for a heavy lift. He made a sound that could have been a laugh, if laughter caused physical pain.

When I talked to Shirreffs, she pointed out that the people most in need of such help tend to be residents of Florida’s rural areas. They’re already paying so much for their utilities, she said, they sometimes have to choose between turning on the air conditioner and putting food on the table.

She pointed out that, in 2019, DeSantis said he’s in favor of expanding solar energy.

“We live in the Sunshine State, and solar energy is a natural resource that should be seriously considered,” he said in a press release sent out by FPL. “As Florida’s energy needs continue to grow at a rapid pace, it is important that we diversify our energy resources.”

Send in the clowns

DeSantis has, in a roundabout way, blamed one person for not applying for the federal money.

I am talking about the state official that DeSantis’ spokesman told the Orlando Sentinel to contact for answers about the Solar for All money: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson.

You may find this confusing. Let me explain.

Wilton Simpson, via Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

The Florida Legislature uses the Agriculture Department the way you use that one kitchen drawer as a catch-all for loose screws, twist-ties, half-empty tubes of glue, and anything else you can’t categorize. The Agriculture Department oversees such disparate interests as state forests, consumer protection and — ta-da! — the state’s energy office.

News stories about Simpson (no relation to Homer or O.J.) often describe him as “an egg farmer from Trilby.” But that’s not exactly accurate.

Simpson owns an industrial egg production operation that, according to the Citrus County Chronicle, has more than 1 million chickens. This is the point at which I am tempted to scramble up a whole flock of egg-related yolks, I mean jokes, but instead I’ll let it lay.

Apparently, those chickens are laying golden eggs. Simpson’s financial disclosure forms say that, as of 2020, he’s worth more than $31.5 million and his “egg farm” worth more than $17.8 million.

He’s found solar power pretty profitable, too.

In 2018, when he was a state senator, he was part of a Pasco County land deal for a solar farm that netted him and his wife Kathy $4.4 million. At the time, Simpson praised solar as “a renewable, sustainable energy source.”

Like the Sentinel, I tried repeatedly to get a quote out of Simpson’s office about the Solar for All funding failure. Like the Sentinel, I heard nothing but silence.

Ask any reporter who routinely covers government agencies: If something happens that no one wants to talk about, it’s probably because it was a screw-up.

Because nobody in either DeSantis’ office or Simpson’s department wants to answer any questions about Solar for All, I think that the failure to apply for the money was an embarrassing oversight and they wish everyone would forget about it.

Fortunately, there’s a handy way to fix this, and it doesn’t involve government funding.

If Simpson’s such a fan of solar power, and if he’s the one who screwed up applying for Solar for All, then let him peel off a few thousand bucks from the wad of bills in his pocket to buy solar panels for some poor, rural Floridians.

In the meantime, as Judy Collins says: Send in the clowns! Maybe we could hire one to stand behind Simpson at every Cabinet meeting and repeatedly bop him on the noggin with a rubber chicken so this won’t ever happen egg-gain.

Florida Legislature, Florida Phoenix, Craig Pittman, Solar Panels, Florida, Environment