Podcast: South Miami — A Bright Spot For Solar In Sunshine State

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Originally published at ilsr.org.

In most states, electric utilities have a monopoly over their customers and, in exchange for that monopoly, are more or less regulated by state utility commissions or state legislatures. So what can a city do to advance clean energy locally, if its state commissioners and legislators are not willing to take their jobs regulating these utilities seriously?

Philip Stoddard, the recently re-elected, fourth-term mayor of South Miami, a suburban community in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, has some ideas on where cities like his can start.

Stoddard, who has been called “one of America’s greenest mayors” and who serves as a professor at Florida International University, is an ardent champion for local energy development. He is also unafraid to speak truth to power to the state’s monopoly utility — Florida Power & Light Company, also known as FPL — or the commission charged with regulating it.

Stoddard recently spoke with ILSR’s director of Energy Democracy, John Farrell, about the city’s efforts to promote rooftop solar and energy self-reliance, and the uphill battle against the shade-throwing, incumbent investor-owned utility.

Why Does Solar Struggle in the Sunshine State?

Florida is called the “Sunshine State” and ranks 8th in solar energy potential from building rooftops, but the state ranks only 20th in installed distributed solar energy per capita. So, why the lag in solar development statewide?

Stoddard points out that, while local communities such as his are taking the lead on distributed solar in Florida, they are routinely up against powerful interests with deep pockets and “evil genius” that makes doing so a challenge.

“Well, Florida’s energy situation is ruled by the investor-owned utilities,” he explains, “And they would be very keen on solar power, if they owned the sun. So, what they’ve done instead is they’ve spent, oh, $20-$30 million — that we know of — fighting rooftop solar.”

Florida Power & Light, like most other monopoly electric utilities, spends this large sum on the usual suspects: lobbying and public relations. By doing so, it helps maintain the state’s status quo of having below average grid interconnection rules and incentivizing centralized, fossil fuel-based power generation over renewable sources.

Explaining how there are more utility lobbyists than “legislators in Tallahassee” and a public service commission that “almost never fails to give FPL example what FPL wants,” Stoddard illustrates just how the state’s largest monopoly utility is able to get “most of the Florida government eating out of their hands.”

How Has South Miami Championed Local Energy?

Even as an underdog in the face of a powerful utility and weak public service commission, Stoddard is undeterred by a challenge.

“My philosophy,” he explains, “is if the big boys are going to behave badly, let’s turn into a swarm of solar users and overrun them.”

Stoddard relies on a clear and deep understanding of energy issues, savvy negotiating skills, and coalition-building, including working closely with a “Green Corridor” of nearby communities, to fight Florida Power & Light’s monopoly power. In so doing, he is helping South Miami champion innovative, local energy strategies that level the playing field for distributed energy.

For example, last year before his reelection, Stoddard proposed a solar energy ordinance requiring new homes built in the city to have solar panels. It was later passed by the city commission, becoming the first of its kind in the state of Florida.

Other local strategies that South Miami leaders and residents are taking include creating solar purchasing cooperatives and piloting energy storage technology.

On the latter topic, Stoddard explains how he is just getting started, “I am going to be meeting … to find out how these [energy storage] devices can be integrated with our local solar systems. And I plan to be one of the early adopters.”

Mayor Stoddard’s Advice for Other Mayors?

Like other mayors across the country, Stoddard is responsible for managing a wide portfolio of issues that cross his desk, but he clearly makes democratizing the energy system a priority. With his leadership, knowledge, and personal experience on the subject, Stoddard does not shy away from being a resource or providing concrete advice to other cities and mayors engaged in climate and energy planning at the local level.

“I want people to circle back with me,” he stresses.

In addition to the common sustainability and climate planning blueprints of transit-oriented development and cleaner transit options that rely on electric vehicles, Stoddard calls on cities to “solarize the suburbs” and not to overlook these communities that, in terms of energy demand and rooftop area, are ripe for residential solar development.

Perhaps most importantly, “make it as easy for people as possible,” Stoddard recommends.

By following the lead set by Mayor Philip Stoddard’s example in speaking truth to power to the state’s monopoly utility and incentivizing distributed energy, cities of all sizes can join South Miami as bright spots in the growing movement for energy self-reliance.

Find all Local Energy Rules podcast episodes here.

For more on city tools to meet ambitious local energy goals, see ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Photo credit: Ken Fields via Flickr (CC 2.0).

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John Farrell

John directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.

John Farrell has 518 posts and counting. See all posts by John Farrell