From the Archive: South Miami, a Bright Spot for Solar in the Sunshine State – Episode 85 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 11 Sep 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
With over 80 episodes and five years of ILSR’s Local Energy Rules podcast, we’ve found plenty of great conversation gems in our archive. We’ll continue to highlight some of these past episodes by re-releasing them with a “From the Archive” label and providing our listeners with where-are-they-now updates for new and dedicated subscribers alike.

In Southern Florida, utilities relax after escaping the brunt of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction. Other areas, like Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands, weren’t so lucky. The growing threat of large storms poses a question for coastal communities: what kind of energy system will be most resilient? Although it wasn’t tested by this most recent storm, our podcast guest has been pushing for distributed energy systems to build resiliency for his Florida community.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, we reach into the archive to a conversation between host John Farrell and South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard. In the episode, published April of 2018, the two discuss combatting monopoly utility power through local efforts to implement solar in South Miami. Since the episode, many of Mayor Stoddard’s endeavors have produced results. In March, Stoddard showed that energy independence was possible by taking his home off the grid and running on his own solar and battery storage for seven days. Then, in May, the City Commission made a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2040.

Listen to the episode to hear about Stoddard and South Miami’s efforts that led to these achievements, and explore highlights and resources, below — including a transcript of the conversation and more updates since the interview took place.

John Farrell For this episode of Local Energy Rules, we head to the archive, replaying our interview with South Miami mayor Philip Stoddard. In this conversation from April 2018, we discussed South Miami’s fight for renewable energy against a resistant monopoly utility and Stoddard’s own drive to lead by example with solar.

Since the episode aired, Mayor Stoddard made the news by doing exactly as he set out to do years ago: taking himself off the grid and proving that solar works in Florida. Using his rooftop solar, electric car, and two Tesla Powerwall batteries, Stoddard went off the grid for a week in March of 2019. Stoddard is walking the walk, not only for the economic benefits of energy independence, but also for the security it provides during hurricane season.

This fall, after a near miss from Hurricane Dorian, South Miami and other coastal cities are taking a look at how the fossil fuel industry is both vulnerable to and contributing to extreme weather events like hurricanes. In this light, and with Mayor Stoddard’s example, the South Miami City Commission made a commitment to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2040.

We hope you enjoy this short trip back in time to April 2018, when I spoke with Mayor Stoddard about the efforts he and his city were making toward their recent accomplishments.

John Farrell Can cities really drive our energy future? In over 30 states, electric utilities are monopoly companies with the exclusive right to serve customers in state designated geographic areas. Cities and local residents have limited choices, but some cities aren’t satisfied with taking a back seat to their energy future. Philip Stoddard is the mayor of South Miami, the suburb of Miami that’s been putting up a big fight for energy choice despite its small size. Stoddard recently spoke with me about what cities, even small ones, have the power to do to accelerate clean energy. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy.

Now you have been up to a lot of really interesting things, but I wanted to back up. So you’re in Florida, Florida is called the sunshine state. Um, but I have a feeling that based on the work that you’ve been doing in South Miami, that the state might not be living up to its name when it comes to energy.

Philip Stoddard Well, Florida’s energy situation is ruled by the investor owned utilities 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. They, you know, they’re okay with solar, provided they own it. But even, even recently, the Sierra Club has launched a suit against Florida power and not against Florida power and light, but against the public services commission because Florida power and light (FPL) proposed to build new gas, peaker generators in an era when everybody’s building battery solar and they didn’t even price out the cost of battery solar by comparison. So that’s, that’s our energy, our energy situation. So my philosophy is if, if the big boys are going to behave badly, let’s, um, let’s turn into a swarm of, of solar users and overrun them.
John Farrell I love it. Um, you know, you mentioned in the article that I came across that, uh, got me so interested in talking with you, uh, through southeast energy news. Uh, it mentioned that you have solar on your own roof and an electric car, which you can obviously then power from that solar panel also from the grid. Um, tell me a little bit about how you as mayor have helped other south Miami residents be more energy self-reliant.
Philip Stoddard Well, of course the first thing you do is you lead by example. So there’s, there’s, you know, you’re a total hypocrite if you’re telling other people to get solar and you don’t have it yourself. So of course we decided to do that and, and lead the way. And then we got a pretty good, a pretty good price on, on solar and decided to see if we could get that same price for other people. So we, uh, through the city, we did a request for proposals to local installers and the most responsive ones with the best prices. Uh, we just said, see if they would check a little box saying they would extend these prices to everybody in the county and they all did. And so you could get south Miami pricing on solar for several years. So a lot of folks started started getting solar that way, you know, just a good price retail markets still. And then the next question was, can we expand beyond that? So I teamed up with the League of women voters and a group I belong to called the green corridor, which is an inter-local organization. And through the green corridor we were able to fund the creation of solar buying cooperatives. This is a, an initiative by solar United neighbors. It’s national. And so we did it in Miami Dade County and we started co-ops down here. So we’ve been pushing, uh, pushing low prices and good and good quality services and it’s working out very well.
John Farrell So with the seller buying cooperative, uh, and I should disclose, I’m actually on the board of Solar United Neighbors, so I’m very familiar with their work, but the seller buying cooperative model is essentially you get a bunch of folks together that want to put solar on their own homes and, and they then sort of go out for bid together to see if they can get a better price, uh, by buying in bulk. And not only that, the coordinator or that co-ops tends to be an expert. And so there’s a million questions people have and the coordinators can provide that information in, in group information sessions. And it’s a very efficient way to get a lot of information to a lot of people. Now, you know, you mentioned this already before about the challenge of the investor owned utilities. They have their own business model. They have their own ways of making money. You joked that, you know, they, uh, would love solar if they owned to the sun. Are you also in the article, uh, in southeast energy news called Florida power and light, which is the biggest monopoly utility that serves most of Florida’s urban areas, an evil genius. Why do you give them that title?
Philip Stoddard Which part? The evil or the genius part? Everyone doing what they do, whatever they set out to do. There’s only one thing that they routinely fail at, and that’s the knock me out of office. Uh, other than that, they tend to be successful at what they do. Uh, they give immense amounts of money to state legislators and the governor and the cabinet and so forth, and they’ve got most of the, most of the Florida government eating out of their hands. They, I think they employ more lobbyists than we have legislators in Tallahassee. Uh, so they’re very, very powerful as a, as a, as an entity that can sway policy. they’re pretty good at what they do in terms of, of generating electricity or whatever price they choose to generate it at. They’re part of a much larger company, nextera energy, and they figured out how to split the business model between the, the national scale unregulated utility and the local regulated utility. And they are able to maximize profits, going back and forth across that fence. So I’ll say they’re very good at doing what they do. They put a lot of money into public relations. They, you know, they do little, you know, little piddly solar projects here and there and try to get the maximum bounce out of it. You know, they’ve got less than 1% of the generation capacity coming from solar and they’re all over public radio saying how, what great environmental stewards they are and how they’re generating energy from the sun, et Cetera. One of their latest, uh, I’ll call it a scam, cause that’s what it is, is trying to convince the environmental community to, um, support their solar fields as some kind of a nature sanctuaries. So how is it you turn a greenfield into a silicon field and you try to tout that as a natural feature? I don’t know, but hey, they’re trying. Very interesting. Um, you know, they put solar on science museums and things like that. So they get the maximum amount of public exposure with the minimum amount of solar.
John Farrell Right. I’m sorry to say that I’ve had that experience with, uh, many other utilities and other places now that the idea behind, um, this regulated monopoly model. So the Florida power and light has a monopoly. They have no competition, over being the person, the entity that sells power on the grid. And this dates back, you know, a hundred years. For a lot of folks it’s kind of hard to wrap our heads around the fact that, you know, there, this is not a free market model in our country. We have this monopoly structure, but they’re, the reason that we’ve agreed to it is that we ostensibly have these public regulators, the Public Service Commission or Public Utilities Commission, they go by different names at different states. And these are either elected or appointed folks whose job is supposed to be to protect the public interest and to make sure that, you know, even though there is a monopoly company, that they’re not getting unreasonable profits, that they’re protecting the public interest, making sure energy stays affordable. You alluded to this before with this, you know, these, uh, gas power plants that a utility wants to build, even though solar and energy storage are incredibly cost effective. What is the state’s Public Service Commission doing? And, and you know, how has it maybe not living up to that goal of protecting the public interest?
Philip Stoddard Well, what state’s Public Service Commission, um, gets together and they lie on their backs and stick their little hands and feet in the air and wave them, let’s say whatever you want. I mean, that’s pretty much what they do. and I’m not really exaggerating. They almost never fail to give FPL exactly what FPL wants. So one of the things that FPL wanted to do some years back was to purchase a gas fracking operation in Oklahoma. And not only would they allow FPL to do this, but they would then allow FPL to charge their 12% profit rate on that operation, irrespective of whether it made money or lost money.

So it just becomes part of their rate base, you know, so you can lose money in natural gas and FPL still makes money. So the office of public counsel, I think finally, uh, finally sued them successfully, uh, over some of that, but they’ve, you know, they’ve asked for the rate payers to pay for all of the storm-related damage here. We had hurricanes come through here, you may recall, but yet FPL reduced their storm maintenance expenditure some years ago and got upgraded by Moody’s as a consequence of that. So they’re making us more vulnerable. And then when we get slammed by a hurricane, we have to pay for the repairs. FPL has more pastors than any other utility. And the public services commission allows this.

John Farrell Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations every year. Each year, our small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to Ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it or by giving it a review on iTunes, stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts: Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.
John Farrell Now you mentioned some of the things that you’ve done to help people go solar, which obviously gives them a chance to buy from somebody else other than the utility company or to get power from their own rooftop. You also mentioned in that piece, and about this as again about those gas peaker plants that, uh, you know, Sierra Club was essentially suing the public service commission over this, but that you’ve signed on to an amicus brief to help support that effort. Are there other things that you’re able to do at the city level given, you know, these utilities are regulated at the state level and maybe not very regulated at the state level. Are there things that you can do at the local level, to help push back to give people more choices?
Philip Stoddard We don’t have a lot of choice in the more choices department. We really don’t. If, if you’re the city of Orlando that isn’t bound to a utility in the same way, then they have a lot more choices. I mean, so look, look to Orlando is the model for the city. That’s kind of breakthrough. It’s not going to happen here in Miami Dade County. We really have our hands tied. One of the things that South Miami also did was we were the first municipality outside of California to require solar on new residential construction. And the utilities fought against that. Their hired guns, an outfit out of Washington DC called, family businesses for affordable energy, which has a remarkable website called make solar safe devoted to sharing solar horror stories. They hired lobbyists and PR firms down here to, to fight us on this, you know, came in, they got the builders riled up. They got the low income community coming into the commission meeting saying it’s going to make the cost of housing more expensive, which is of course exactly opposite of the truth because solar reduces the cost of housing. It was all based on lies, which has been their standard model for fighting, uh, fighting renewable energy in Florida saying it’s too unreliable. Batteries are going to change that, you know, so what can we do? Um, really I think it’s pedal to the metal on rooftop solar, it’s one of the very few ways you can work to save the planet and make money at the same time. I mean, how much better can it get from that?
John Farrell You mentioned energy storage. Have you, um, has, have the solar buying cooperatives that you’re involved with or has the city had any involvement in trying to get energy storage paired with the solar arrays that you’re helping people by in South Miami?
Philip Stoddard I’m just starting on that this week. So I’ve got the, you know, down here in south Florida, there’s exactly one company that is doing Tesla power walls. It’s clearly the superior battery technology at this point in time. And nobody has stock. Essentially Puerto Rico happened and all of the, all of Tesla’s technical people and a lot of their battery stock started going into Puerto Rico, which is a great thing, but I am going to be meeting with the person who was part of that pipeline of Powerwalls to Puerto Rico to find out, you know, how these, how these devices can be integrated with our local solar systems. And I plan to be one of the early adopters on that. Again for the opportunity to get to get the press in and show them how it works. I think that’s sort of how you begin the process. This week I had a TV crew from Armenia running around up on my roof doing a documentary on, on rooftop solar here in Florida. So, you know, we get people in from all over to take a look at it.
John Farrell That’s great. One other question, or maybe a story to share, and then a question. So I, in Minneapolis, where I’m from, there’s a similar situation in terms of utility control. We have a regulated monopoly here called Xcel Energy and Minneapolis’s, um, a customer are all residents and businesses of the city or customers. We have a as well here what are called franchise contracts. So every 20 years or so, the city would renew this contract with the utility and it was really about the use of public right of way. So, uh, you know, the poles and wires that run down the alleys are on public property and even though the utility has a monopoly on providing service, they still have to work with the city and making sure that the use of that public property is, is respected. And, and so, uh, the franchise agreement, as I understand it, sort of steps in place of the utility having to pull a permit every time it needs to go out and fix a pole or string a new wire or whatever. What happened in Minneapolis, it’s sort of interesting, is about five years ago, there was some organizing that I was involved in, to, use that little point of leverage to say to the utility, you know, with the city has a climate action plan around reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has goals for getting local renewable energy generation. And, and there’s no way we can do those things without you being more involved. And so under the guise of talking about what options the city had, really the only option for the city was to consider municipalize to take over the utility company and to use eminent domain to take the grid and, and become a utility, which is, I’m sure is you’re aware of very long and complicated and expensive process.

But it took the utility to the table and they’ve now formed with the city, uh, what’s called a clean energy partnership where, um, both the gas and the electric utility in the city are all now around the same table. And like, I will, I won’t say that it has resulted in any magical transformation of our grid system in Minneapolis. What it has done is kind of localized our decision making and conversations about energy in an interesting way because now people can come to an advisory meeting at City Hall and help to talk about how, uh, resources and money could be spent to move the city in that direction rather than, um, just at the Public Service Commission, uh, which may be hundreds of miles away. Uh, and I’m just curious to, you know, do you have a franchise contract with Florida power and light? Do you, do you see any opportunities like that where you could, uh, engage on a local level? Are they generally hostile to what you’re trying to do? Sort of both.

Philip Stoddard Ah, we, south Miami, our franchise agreement came up for renewal and we negotiated with Florida Power & Light for a year and a half. We weren’t able to do the sorts of things that you suggest because we’re too small municipality in a much larger county and Miami Dade County has an umbrella franchise agreement that sits over all the other municipalities. So that if we fail to come to terms with Florida power light, the county’s franchise agreement takes precedence. And you have to know about franchise agreements. There’s a franchise fee associated, so all the residents pay 6% of their utility bill to the FTO, which then passes that money through to the holder of the franchise agreement, which you know, for us is a, is a good chunk of change for our annual budget. And so had we failed to come to terms with FPL, the county would have taken that money and kept it, Haha. So our citizens still would have been taxed effectively, even though it’s not technically a tax, but they would have been taxed and we would have lost that money from our budget in the county would have held onto it, not giving it back. So we had a gun to our heads, which, which reduced our bargaining power. But nonetheless, one of the things we were still able to get through was an agreement by FPL that other providers could provide renewable power to our citizens if they were to come along and wished to do so with one per Vizo. And that is that the other providers would also pay the same franchise fee, essentially a level playing field. And I had no problem with, with a level playing field. I just don’t want to see the, the playing field entirely imbalanced. So that’s, that’s what we were able to get. So our citizens can in principle, uh, purchase solar power from somebody else. You know, if the day ever comes that the Florida legislature would allow that to happen.
John Farrell So yeah, I was just going to ask about that. That would be one way then that you could have people do leasing arrangement, for example, for a solar panel on their roof, which I know has been a point of major contention, uh, in Florida as I recall, there was a ballot initiative and, uh, somebody, I believe someone called it political Jujitsu by Florida power and light, uh, in terms of placing their own amendment on the ballot to try to squash that effort.
Philip Stoddard Yeah, yeah. It was more than just Jujitsu. It was, it was almost fraud.
John Farrell Do you have any advice for, uh, folks in other cities, whether it’s mayors or city council members who are trying to identify ways that their city can, uh, attack climate change or to help their citizens have some more choices or to, um, uh, invest in renewable energy about where they could start, given that you’ve had a lot of experience here?
Philip Stoddard Well, it’s, it’s really pedal to the metal on suburban solar. That’s the first thing. I mean, the, the only real substantial ecological services that the suburbs can provide a solar power. And so what municipalities need to do is to provide every possible incentive for the suburbs to solarize and over and over generate in fact is, is a great thing. So make sure that people are putting in enough solar to power their electric car. You know, if you’re going to get that, you’re going to get that volt or Tesla three or whatever. I mean, they’re all going to be electric pretty soon. Put in a little extra solar so you’ll be able to power your car, make sure your house makes at least as much electricity as it needs. And that’s a great thing to do. So we have waved solar permitting fees in Florida and put every kind of municipal incentive in place. We waive solar preventing fees, we make it as easy for people as possible. We got the co-op system going here. That is, that is huge. If you can do that. Um, you know, inside of denser cities, that’s harder, you know? Promoting public transit is a big deal because public transit cuts down, I mean you can cut 50% of your carbon footprint off if you have effective public transit. So that’s the other side. So between those two things, um, you know, transit oriented development, good transit systems and solar in the suburbs, that’s your, that’s your big three. Those are the three things that we need to be doing. There’s no magic to it.
John Farrell Well Philip, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. It’s great to hear about the work that you’re doing in Florida and frustrating I’m sure, to have to share about the problems we’ve had with FPL. But I think it’s inspiring for what folks are trying to do in other places to realize there are still things you can do even when up against a behemoth like an investor owned utility.
Philip Stoddard Thank you. I want people to circle back with me cause I’m going to be, you know, when I get those batteries in, we’re going to be bringing in the press and we’re going to be shutting off the power maintenance and showing people how the air conditioning down here in Florida still runs with utility power turned off.
John Farrell This is John Farrell, director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative. I was speaking with Philip Stoddard, the mayor of south Miami, about the many ways his city is standing up to the power of the incumbent electric utility to put the pedal to metal for local solar, electric vehicles, and other tools for a local energy economy. For more information on how cities can accelerate local energy progress, check out ILSR’s interactive community power toolkit, which is available at ilsr.org. While you’re at our website, you can find more than 50 past episodes of the local energy rules podcast. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Energy Independence in Disaster-Prone Areas

Stoddard says he went off-grid last March to prepare for hurricane season. Southeast Florida is the most hurricane prone area in the U.S., with a major hurricane expected to land once every 10 years. Just two years ago, Hurricane Irma skirted by Miami, causing $50 billion in damage. Hurricanes do more than just down power lines; entire infrastructures can be wiped out. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans had to wait anywhere from months to a year to have their power restored.


For more on Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, listen to these 2019 interviews with Marcel Castro Sitiriche and Ingrid Vila, recorded in Puerto Rico for Local Energy Rules.


Six months after Stoddard tested his at-home generation, catastrophic Hurricane Dorian formed with South Miami in its path. The city was not hit this time. Stoddard was prepared regardless, and hopes all suburban homeowners will follow his lead. He argues that solar is “the only real substantial ecological service that the suburbs can supply,” since many homeowners could be generating more electricity than they use.

In some cases, energy independence is not feasible. The people most affected by Hurricanes are the poor. Many cannot afford to rebuild, let alone purchase the kinds of technologies Stoddard employed. This is why cities must do what they can to foster decentralized systems that will benefit all, not just those who can afford to participate.


Read more about the benefits of distributed generation in our 2016 report Mighty Microgrids.


Progressing With or Without the Utility

Florida Power & Light, the investor-owned utility serving South Miami, has put up a lot of resistance to Stoddard’s initiatives. In the interview, Stoddard describes how utility lobbyists have spread misinformation and turned residents against renewables. 

The Florida Public Service Commission, tasked with regulating monopoly utility companies, often succumbs to the utility’s interest. Stoddard laments the fact that Florida Power & Light was allowed to decrease its storm maintenance budget, so it now passes the costs of storm damage on to the customer.


For more on the power of investor-owned electric utilities in energy markets and politics, listen to this podcast from ILSR’s Building Local Power series.


A win for Stoddard at the time of the podcast was a city resolution to require solar on new residential construction. South Miami was the first city outside of California to adopt this legislation, despite Florida Power & Light’s efforts to stop it. Stoddard says of the utility:

There’s only one thing that they routinely fail at, and that’s to knock me out of office.

Now, South Miami has made a commitment to renewable energy, and it is an ambitious one. The city has committed to community-wide clean, renewable energy by 2040. South Miami’s commitment has a short timeline, with many other cities adopting a goal of 2050. The city may have to work with its utility if it plans to see this through.

Read more in the original episode post, Local Energy Rules episode 53. 

 

Episode Notes

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.


This is the 85th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Ken Fields via Flickr (CC 2.0).

Hurricane Photo Credit: Antti Lipponen via Flickr (CC 2.0)

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Maria McCoy
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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a research associate with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.

John Farrell
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John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.