|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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?
|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.
|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?
|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.
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|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?
|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?
|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?
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|Yeah, yeah. It was more than just Jujitsu. It was, it was almost fraud.
|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?
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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 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.
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.