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Podcast Transcript: Defending the Future of Solar with Ben Millar and Beth Matuga of FLASEIA

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Dave Anderson: I'd like to welcome everyone out to the Solar Podcast. I'm Dave Anderson, the host of the Solar Podcast, and I'm just thrilled to have with us today, Ben Millar and Beth Matuga. I'm going to let them give a little bit of an introduction to themselves. I will maybe just tee up that we're going to be talking a lot about the Florida solar market, but I think it actually has a lot to do with, and we can extend some of the things that are happening in Florida across the country, because for whatever reason, solar becomes a politicized thing in different areas and it really affects homeowners. It affects small businesses. It affects each of us as individuals because all of us are users of energy.

Dave Anderson: I think talking about this is going to be something that's really fascinating and really interesting for both homeowners as well, as really fascinating for people that are in the solar industry, people that are just following the solar industry from the peripheries, whether you feel like solar is a great technology, a terrible technology, energy's something that affects us all. We're going to try to dive into those things and we're going to use Florida as an analog to better understand what's actually happening across the country. Maybe without further ado, we can have Beth, if you wouldn't mind giving a little introduction to yourself and I understand you're fairly new to solar so you can talk about how you stepped in or tiptoed into solar for the first time.

Beth Matuga: Yes. Thank you, Dave. Thank you for having me and I am Beth Matuga. I am the campaign manager for FlaSEIA. During the legislative session earlier this year, FlaSEIA embarked on a very aggressive campaign concerning the net metering proposed legislation that as we know, I don't want to spoil anything, was eventually successful in so much as governor Ron DeSantis vetoed the net metering bill and I have been working in Florida politics and government for 20 some odd years. This is my first foray into the solar market in the solar industry. I really had no particular knowledge or special insight into solar prior to coming to help out FlaSEIA at the beginning of the year and have really been overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and the dedication of the folks, not only at FlaSEIA, but the larger solar aligned, solar organizations and proponents. I appreciate you having me on and I think that there's some really interesting takeaways from what's gone on in Florida over the last several months and hopefully we can get similar, good results all over the country.

Dave Anderson: Thanks for that. Ben, also, I should just mention that both Beth and Ben have a connection with FlaSEIA and Ben, as part of your introduction, if you wouldn't mind just giving our listeners an overview of who FlaSEIA is as well. I think that might be useful.

Ben Millar: FlaSEIA stands for the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, which is a mouthful to say so we just say we just say FlaSEIA. As an organization, the organization's actually quite large or quite old. It started in 1977. It's interesting. Florida's sole industry was a cottage industry for quite a while until maybe seven years ago that it really started to blossom and really took off maybe five years ago. Now has turned into, I would say, somewhat of a powerhouse and an industry that's continuing to grow. I believe we have the second or third largest solar industry and jobs in the country as a state. FlaSEIA represents a lot of the largest solar companies and that's both contractors, vendors, distributors, manufacturers, the whole gamut.

Dave Anderson: Great. A little bit more about yourself, Ben. I know that you're a business owner aside from being a member of the board at FlaSEIA.

Ben Millar: Absolutely. I own Sun Harvest Energy along with my brother who owns part of it as well. We actually employ another brother. We started our company back in September, but I've been in the industry for, I don't know, about 10 years now. Even before that, I was in energy efficiency and also in home building. I've been in the building construction, energy efficiency, and green building, sustainable building industry for a good 20 years now, which would include solar?

Dave Anderson: I think also maybe worth mentioning as well to say that you're in the trenches or at least the proverbial trenches, I think is a little bit of an understatement. I know that you actually stepped off of a project literally off of a roof to join the call with us today. We're particularly grateful and you're welcome as well. I hope that you're able to cool off in the car instead of being in the Florida sun, but being on a roof in Florida, let alone anywhere installing solar can be really a pretty, from a heat perspective, intense job to say the least.

Ben Millar: I'll give you a little bit of a secret. It is still hot in the car and because of the audio performance, I am turning the air conditioning off while I'm speaking, and then will mute myself and turn on the air conditioning while we are... Just a quick secret there.

Dave Anderson: Because I know what the temperatures in Florida, if I hear a little bit of a fan noise, I think both I, as well as the listeners can be a little forgiving of that. But thanks for accommodating the audio there as well. Perfect. I think, Ben, you're going to have some really fantastic perspective for all of the listeners, what it really means to be a business owner in a highly politicized environment where really, and legitimately, I don't think I'm being, or speaking with hyperbole when I say that many people's jobs were really on the line in Florida, as it relates to this bill that was proposed. Beth, if you wouldn't mind, I'd love if you could give us an overview of what that proposed bill was and what precisely FlaSEIA was trying to do as it relates to the bill. I guess it really goes into and speaks really to the heart of what you were ultimately contracted to do for FlaSEIA.

Beth Matuga: Sure. Ben, I just want to thank you for being on, because Ben, we're going to rely on you for the more nuanced data and policy issues with regard to solar. I was hired to help out organizing essentially a legislative campaign or effort surrounding two bills that were filed. One in the state house and one in the state Senate concerning net metering, which is the process by which the power that is generated from a residential solar installation is sent back into the grid. The scenario was such that the large for profit investor owned utilities or IOUs as we call them in Florida were proponents of these two bills and worked very closely with the sponsors of the bills in order to craft language that was pretty helpful to them. The net metering changes that would've resulted would've been devastating to the solar installer and broader solar community in Florida.

Beth Matuga: We'll let Ben talk a little bit about the exact nuances of the content of the bill, but that was the scenario. It was a very dire situation for the solar industry in Florida and the effort to combat these two bills actually began in the fall of 2021. The efforts were multi-pronged. It's important also to mention, as Ben said, that FlaSEIA has been around since the seventies, but has never had to activate itself or its members or its allied partners in the way that it was compelled to this past several months and so great credit to the leadership of FlaSEIA for recognizing this impending issue and the ramifications that it could potentially have for everyone in the industry and activating their networks and their installers in order to rally the troops and prepare to fight this net metering battle.

Beth Matuga: Back in the fall of 2021, when it became clear that this was going to be an issue that came up during legislative session, FlaSEIA embarked on an aggressive strategy to hire a lobbyist, first and foremost, but in order to hire a lobbyist, you have to raise some money. The leadership of the organization undertook its largest and most successful fundraising campaign from its own members and from partner organizations, both within the State of Florida and around the country and secured a great deal of national grant funding and also opened a political committee, which is an entity in Florida that can accept contributions and then distribute campaign contributions and political contributions to other political entities in the state. That was an effort to demonstrate to the folks in Tallahassee and the broader political world that the solar installers and the industry was real and was robust and able to respond to this threat and has skin in the game and is going to be around for a while.

Beth Matuga: Established that political committee, raised a significant amount of money into it, and then spent several months meeting with key legislators, supporting certain campaigns and certain political entities in order to build relationships with those folks, knowing that eventually we would have to work with them very closely in order to fight the net metering battle and defeat these bills. That effort not only included the hiring of a lobbyist, but the hiring of me, and it grew into a partnership with more than 15 state and national organizations of all stripes and flavors. It grew into television, radio, mass communications, digital advertising, word of mouth, letter writing campaigns, op-eds, contacting each and every legislator, and finally culminating in the legislative session when the bills were heard.

Dave Anderson: You did a fantastic job of just setting the arena or setting up the... And understanding for the listeners about how politicized these types of things really become. You have an investor owned utility that goes and gets a state legislator to champion a bill that would substantively change the way that a homeowner can benefit by solar. And a homeowner... There's really only a few things that generally matter to the homeowner when considering renew or solar as an energy source for their home. It's the cost of putting solar on your home and then the economic benefit that you can receive for the surplus amount of power that your home, or excuse me, the solar panels produced that's not used by the home.

Dave Anderson: You have to be able to do something with that electricity, whether it's stored in the home and then used later, or whether it's stored on the grid and used by your neighbors. It might be useful to back up just a little bit and understand the existing net energy metering program that exists. Ben, I don't know if you wanted to try to explain for us what the economic benefit is presently for a homeowner in Florida, what net energy metering exists today? Then we can transition into talking about how the bill would've changed the existing net energy metering program.

Ben Millar: Absolutely. I like to not say that net metering is a benefit. In a way it's just fair trade of energy, fair trade of credits. The benefit comes from the sun. The tool that enables you to get the full reward for harvesting the saunas, obviously, my company likes to say is net meeting. It's really just an even exchange of, here's a kilowatt hour of energy, later on when I need a kilowatt hour of energy. You take it from my tab, which I've got credits on. This net metering bill, would've been pretty devastating because homeowner's investments would've been undervalued. The energy that they would've provided to the grid would've been undervalued.

Ben Millar: They had been shortchanged for any of the energy that they sent to the grid, which by the way, the utilities would've taken that energy, sent it all of 20 feet to their neighbors, it would've stayed pretty local and sold that energy at full price. Net metering essentially gives you full credit for energy you send on to the grid, it's just an even exchange, one credit for one credit. Nobody benefits greatly from that. Nobody's hurt greatly from that. It's just an even exchange. When you get rid of that, what happens is you actually end up subsidizing utility by huge amounts, and it makes your investment as a homeowner in solar, it makes it a poor investment once you get rid of net metering. That was the initial bill that was proposed is basically getting completely rid of net metering and devaluing our homeowners investment. Therefore, our homeowners would be less likely to decide to move forward with the bill.

Dave Anderson: I think, just to try to be as fair as we can, understanding that, obviously this is the Solar Podcast. We're huge proponents of and advocates for solar across the country, renewable energy generally, but certainly specifically solar, but just to try to be objective for our listeners as well, those that are opponents of net energy metering would say that solar customers are benefiting from the grid without subsidizing or without paying their fair share of being connected to the grid. In other words, they get to benefit from the grid without having to incur any of the cost and by so doing, the other whatever, if it's 95% of homeowners, depending on the market penetration in any given area, essentially the 95% that don't have solar end up subsidizing the cost of the infrastructure of the grid for the benefit of everyone, but solar customers aren't paying their fair share.

Dave Anderson: That would be the argument that opponents of net energy metering would make. The truth of it is that at some point, every market needs to move from early adopters into a system where all homeowners can go solar and we can still maintain a grid. You see markets like Hawaii, where solar saturation is such that batteries really are required for the grid network to work there. We're seeing that in pockets in California, where it's becoming increasingly important to consider, now that we're getting solar penetration with homeowners and this bill would have taken away essentially the entire economic benefit of being able to sell your unused electricity to the grid if I'm understanding it correctly, is that right?

Ben Millar: No. You do not sell your energy to the grid. You simply, when you provide energy to the grid, you actually get a credit for that, but there's no selling to the grid. You're just getting a one for one credit exchange for the energy you produced. But I do want to talk a little bit to what you were saying before, but it's really important nuance. There's a couple things that were said, "Hey, if you are a solar homeowner, maybe you're not paying your fair share to the grid." One, solar homeowners in Florida and across the country often still pay a decent amount of money into for their utility bills. They're paying connection fees as well as not everybody gets a hundred percent of their energy from the sun and from their solar system so that they actually are on average paying into the grid, not to mention that solar homeowners actually cost less to actually service.

Ben Millar: Another interesting point there is to say, "Hey, they're not paying for the grid." If you think about what Beth said, these are for profit companies. If you decide to have your own garden, you are not paying for your grocery store. It doesn't mean that you are somehow being subsidized in some way. That argument I think, is not quite right until you reach at least a really high saturation. In Florida, we were less than a 1% saturation. The studies done by NREL show that there is a basically non-existent exchange of benefits/credit/subsidy until you reach 10%. Then once you reach 10% saturation, this is the amount of generation you're actually still pretty negligible in those numbers. We weren't talking about, "Hey, these are ne negligible changes that they were interacting." They were actually getting rid of that meter right away.

Dave Anderson: Thanks for the clarification. I think it's a common misconception, but commonly described as buying and selling your energy with the grid. That's not quite what it is. The net energy metering agreements typically are allowing you to receive a credit off of your energy bill, up to the value that they would charge you for electricity and different states have different net energy metering exchanges. For example, in the State of Utah, where we're filming this podcast from, it's a fixed rate. You have what they call a feed in tariff. Rather than having a one for one exchange for net energy metering, where you get a credit that equals the value of the electricity that you would've purchased at the same time, you get a different rate for the energy that's placed back on the grid compared to the energy that you'd pull off the grid and consume.

Dave Anderson: There's different net energy metering programs. They tend to be fairly similar where you're getting something close to a one for one exchange in the more favorable utilities. There are, of course, utilities that don't offer any net energy metering. For those customers, really the only way to consider solar would be to use storage almost like an off grid solution. Beth, I might want to come back to you if I could and just talk about, so you're a political operative. You had admitted to me before we started the podcast that you're actually fairly new to solar and you are a solar rookie so to speak, really only looking into it since the beginning of 2022. Maybe you can just help us understand how is it that FlaSEIA needed first of all, to have a political operative.