WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Some Duke Energy customers said they got a big shock when they opened their most recent electric bill — a new charge that requires them to spend a specific amount of money with the utility company per month.
“As soon as we just saw the bill, we flipped,” said Duke customer Scott Weinstein. “Yeah, it was absolutely ridiculous.”
Weinstein and his family installed solar panels when they moved into their Winter Garden home to save money on electricity.
He said his bill dropped from an average of $127 per month to $23.
When he saw an added “minimum bill” charge of $17 on his latest bill, he said he wanted answers.
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“I immediately called Duke Energy and said, ‘What is this?’ They said, ‘Oh, this is a new fee that we put on?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They said, ‘No.’ So, where did this come from?”
“My neighbor called me, and said, ‘Did you see this charge?’” said Weinstein’s friend Bill Hackett.
Hackett also installed solar panels on his home. Both families sell some of their power back to the utility, dropping Hackett’s bill to $12 per month.
In January, Hackett’s bill was also adjusted to $30.
“I didn’t think, I got mad,” he said. “I’m like, ‘why?’”
Duke Energy supplied an explanation.
“Beginning in January, Duke Energy Florida instituted a minimum monthly bill of $30 that applies to most non-demand rates for commercial and industrial, and also applies to all residential rates,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Ana Gibbs. “Only a small portion of solar customers are impacted by a minimum bill. The larger portion is made up of a variety of different customers including seasonal customers, customers who have multiple properties, etc.”
She said most Duke customers will not see a difference in their bills.
Florida Power and Light recently approved its own minimum bill of $25 per month.
“It’s definitely something I’m seeing suggested in many places,” Dr. Severin Borenstein said.
The economics professor at the University of California Berkeley specializes in the energy sector.
“As people start putting in rooftop solar and consuming less from the grid, they still use the grid because rooftop solar — every minute of the day — is either taking power off the grid or putting power into the grid, but they don’t pay for it anymore,” he said.
Borenstein took issue, however, with the utilities’ minimum bills.
“The problem is if you institute the minimum bill at the levels they talk about — they’re talking about $25 or $35 a month — it has so little effect,” he said. “There’s so few customers who are below that level, that it really doesn’t raise much revenue at all.”
The new minimum bills come as lawmakers in Tallahassee consider changing the rules on solar electricity.
Senate Bill 1024 and House Bill 741 would essentially end what is called Net Metering and prevent solar customers from selling their excess electricity back to utilities at retail prices.
That could mean even higher bills than solar customers currently see.
“We need renewable energy generation to become a mainstream option,” said Evan Lutes with the climate-based Volo Foundation.
He said the bill in Tallahassee and minimum bills could be a huge deterrent for customers who are considering going solar.
“It’s going to make adopting renewable generation for individuals out of reach,” he said. “That is something that we cannot afford to do at this moment.”
“We’re actually talking to friends who were thinking of going solar, and now, they’re all laying back and saying, ‘Why should we?’ They’re afraid of what’s going to happen,” he said.
News 6 contacted the state senator and state representative who filed the net metering bills in Tallahassee to ask them why they felt the need to file them.
They did not respond.
The senate version of the bill is currently in the rules committee, and it could come up for a full senate vote at any time.