Update: text has been changed to reflect analysis by Snopes, who looked into the original Miami New Times story. Importantly, it is not actually illegal to power your home with solar panels in Florida.
It may have ravaged much of the Caribbean, but Hurricane Irma weakened mercifully quickly as it passed over Florida. That’s not to say that it didn’t cause significant infrastructural damage, of course, and soon after the storm had passed, 40 percent of Florida lacked electricity, something that ended up killing several people who relied on it.
At the time of writing, 1.5 million Floridians are still without power, and the issue of access to solar power has come up. This is the Sunshine State we’re talking about – so why is it so difficult to get a working solar panel for your house there during a natural disaster?
As pointed out by the Miami New Times, Florida Power and Light (FPL) – a major supplier of electricity to the state – has invested heavily in lobbying state lawmakers to disallow residents from powering their own homes with rooftop solar power panels. In fact, thanks to the current laws, it is incredibly difficult to do so; you are urged to connect any solar panels to your local electric grid, provided by a state utility. (See here and here.)
You cannot easily get and connect off-grid solar panels from a third party, unless (for the most part) you have a separate battery system installed, which can be prohibitively expensive. As a result, solar panels are almost always connected to the grid, which - for reasons we'll go into shortly - means that the company can shut them off whenever they wish. In this case, the time FPL have taken to reconnect them has been heavily critized.
Roof-mounted solar panels are an increasing cheap source of renewable energy. In fact, if they became widespread, they would save $3.5 trillion and reduce 24.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050. They also happen to be an excellent source of self-sustaining electricity if the main electrical grid burns out – say, during a hurricane.
So what's going on here? When it comes to this particular issue, FPL defers to national saftey guidelines for utilities.
“Operating your renewable system without the bi-directional meter can result in an inaccurate meter reading causing your bill to increase,” they write.
They also suggest that if you live in a FPL-powered home, your solar panels must also be connected through the same electrical wiring, and “the [renewable] system must shut down when FPL's grid shuts down in order to prevent dangerous back feed on FPL's grid. This is required to protect FPL employees who may be working on the grid.”
Essentially, the company is saying that your solar panels may electrocute workers probing the grid during a routine or inadvertent shut down. Backfeed is indeed a hazard, even with today's safety standards.
Really, the problem here is that the panels have to be connected to the grid, which could genuinely endager workers on the line. If residents were given more room to connect them off-grid to their own battery or equipment, or if separate battery systems weren't so pricey, this wouldn't be a problem at all.
It’s perhaps policies like this that leave Florida, a clear option when it comes to the proliferation of solar power, lagging behind other states like California or New York.