In the News: John Farrell
September 18, 2017
Media Outlet: In These Times
It’s no secret that 2017’s hurricane season has been devastating for communities in the Houston metro area, the Florida Keys, and throughout Puerto Rico. With this destruction lies an enormous opportunity to rebuild energy grids with plenty of clean energy resources and a resiliency not seen in our current 20th century monopoly electricity market.
That’s why In These Times’ Kate Aronoff wrote this article and spoke to ILSR Energy Democracy initiative director about what resiliency means in the wake of hurricanes. She spoke with Farrell about both the opportunity to rebuild a resilient and renewable energy system and how monopoly electric utilities are fighting back against a challenge to their business model. His contribution is below:
There’s an opportunity post-Irma to revolutionize Florida’s power supply, but not one that companies like FPL are likely to take advantage of. As a recent report from InsideClimate News found, FPL started sponsoring research into climate change in the early 1970s before eventually getting involved in efforts to suppress evidence of rising temperatures. The Southern Company, which owns Panhandle electricity provider Gulf Power, for decades contributed to public relations campaigns casting doubt on the existence of climate change, and funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into bogus climate skeptic research.
Like their counterparts in other states, Florida utilities have gone to war with clean energy, too. Last year, they poured a collective $21 million ($8 million from FPL alone) into an unsuccessful ballot measure aimed at stunting various kinds of third-party financing for solar power. Beyond that effort, investor-owned utilities are a force to reckon with in Florida politics; the sector employs one lobbyist for every two state legislators—the most of any industry. This spring, FPL was found to have written whole sections of anti-solar legislation sponsored by state representative Ray Rodriguez, who had previously accepted $15,000 from the utility.
With major utilities aligned in opposition, the road to renewables’ proliferation in Florida may not be an easy one. John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says that policies to transition Florida’s electricity over to renewables could go a long way toward being able to get lights back on more quickly after major storms.
In an ideal rebuilding process, Farrell told In These Times, “What we would see is, from a policy standpoint, that [utilities] would be more supportive of ways customers could build their own power generation. In a system like we have today, if one power line is knocked out, it can affect tens of thousands of people … If we have lots of different pockets of generation, we can figure out ways to fill in the gaps.”
The system Farrell describe is what’s known as a microgrid. The basic idea behind a microgrid is to have a bounded geographic area reliant on the same set of power sources that can be operated independently of a larger electric grid, or “islanded,” in energy-wonk parlance. This allows homes and businesses to share power, meaning if power gets shut off during a storm, entities that get their power from the microgrid can keep their lights on.
Under Florida law and that of several other states, such a practice is illegal, as it would mean undercutting utilities’ legally protected monopoly. The vast majority of solar arrays are currently tied to the electric grid by law, meaning they shut down when the power goes off.
Unsurprisingly, FPL lobbyists have fought to keep this statute on the books. If utilities allowed microgrids—whether servicing large institutions or small commercial and residential areas—they could help maintain power in a deluge. Instead, according to FPL policy, even ratepayers with solar panels, who could feasibly keep their lights on during an outage, are forbidden from doing so. “Renewable generator systems connected to the grid without batteries are not a standby power source during an FPL outage,” the utility’s handbook states.
The problem, Farrell notes, is rooted in FPL and other private electricity providers’ business model. “This is true of investor-owned utilities in all states like Florida, where there are monopolies: Their money for the shareholders comes from getting a rate of return from capital they spend, and building something like a power plant,” he told me. “The utility can build a microgrid and make money from it, but that would mean doing something different.”
Also like those services, what’s being traded isn’t the goodwill of strangers, but real money. In that context, the scalar concerns that come with microgrids’ promise seem almost self-evident: If utilities allow them and there’s a local appetite for it, communities that can afford to create a microgrid will. For others, the financial barriers to such a drastic transition may well prove too high, especially in more rural areas with already aged infrastructure. That’s where utilities can come in.
“Maybe they use their staff to help construct the project…maybe they help finance the system, or build the circuitry,” Farrell says. “There are a lot of ways that utilities could provide their expertise that are different rom simply being the sole provider of electricity.” Critically, big utilities could help level the playing field to help more communities access clean, reliable and storm-resilient power.