Exploring benefits of having solar power during hurricane season

Solar power has made headlines in the weeks following Hurricane Ian after one Florida community that’s 100 percent solar-powered never lost power throughout the storm.

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Solar power has made headlines in the weeks following Hurricane Ian after one Florida community that’s 100 percent solar-powered never lost power throughout the storm.

But despite the benefits the technology can provide, some users feel there are still too many obstacles.

In 2017 Cindy Lewis lost her home in Layton in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma’s storm surge.

“I had between two and a half and three feet of sea water in my home,” Lewis told Local 10′s Amy Viteri. “So everything, everything I owned in the house was destroyed.”

Lewis rebuilt a new, more storm-resilient home on the same lot. The new structure sits on stilts well above sea level. But among the many steps Lewis took to reinforce her home, one of the biggest investments she made was installing solar panels on her roof.

“Well, let’s put it this way, I have not had a power bill in two and a half years,” Lewis explained. “I have produced enough energy here in my 15 solar panels on this little roof to completely power the house every month, and sell back to the grid.”

She said she is now looking into purchasing battery storage for her system, which enables the panels to keep supplying power even in the event of an outage.

“Which will absolutely give me peace of mind. I have friends who have battery backups, and on occasions where there is an outage, the transition is seamless,” she added.

In September, post-Hurricane Ian, a planned 100 percent solar powered community made headlines when it never lost power during the storm. The town of Babcock Ranch sits around 15 miles from hard-hit Fort Myers. Its field of 700 thousand solar panels, managed by Florida Power & Light were seemingly untouched. When asked about the community an FPL spokesperson told Local 10 News while the panels held up well in the storm, their storm-hardened grid played a role.

“The vast majority of our lines at Babcock Ranch are also underground, which, according to the data, performed five times better in Southwest Florida than above-ground lines during Ian,” the spokesperson said.

“I think Ian is giving us an opportunity to think about like, how do we want to make our communities more resilient? Looking at solar and solar plus storage is a really good option,” said Laura Tellez, the program coordinator for the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors in South Florida. “So it is important to understand that unless you have battery storage, if the power goes out, even if you have solar, your system will shut off automatically. That is to protect any utility workers.”

But in the Sunshine state, many solar users feel the technology has come up against too many roadblocks.

This year Florida’s legislature passed a controversial bill, backed by FPL that would have largely done away with what’s known as net metering, the process through which solar power users lower their bills by getting credit for excess energy they produce.

Ultimately Governor Ron DeSantis stepped in to veto the bill, citing inflation and escalating costs, saying: “The state of Florida should not contribute to the financial crunch that our citizens are experiencing.”

FPL also increased rates and imposed a minimum base bill which went into effect this summer. The move infuriated many customers who are now forced to pay the minimum of twenty-five dollars whether they use that power or not.

Solar users like Jim Blankenship felt particularly targeted by the policy.

“That makes me buy energy that I don’t have access to, as a solar customer. And that’s not true for non-solar customers,” he said.

Blankenship, who lives in Vero Beach argued the energy he’s paying for and not using, because he’s generating his own power, would be enough to run an electric car for an entire year.

“I believe that we were being penalized. And the solar business is being penalized,” he said.

Lewis, who lives in the Keys and is not an FPL customer, hence not subject to the minimum base bill. She said her 15 panels generate enough power for her to charge her electric car and still have a zero energy bill every month.

“Remove these obstacles so that people can at least make that choice,” Lewis said, “Make it an affordable choice for everybody, or more affordable for more people.”

In response to criticism of the minimum bill FPL Spokesperson Chris McGrath told Local 10 News in an email: “The minimum base bill helps to ensure that other customers are not subsidizing customers with low or zero usage. The minimum base bill is an alternative to increasing the base charge, which would affect everyone. The vast majority of our customers will have electricity usage that exceeds the low threshold for a minimum base bill.”

The federal government recently renewed a tax incentive allowing a 30% credit on any solar system installed, including back-up battery storage over the next ten years.