By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — State regulators Tuesday approved a Florida Power & Light pilot program aimed at adding electric-vehicle charging stations, while also signing off on an FPL plan that will offer help with electric bills to some small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The approval by the Florida Public Service Commission of the pilot program comes as the number of electric vehicles on the state’s roads increases. Lawmakers also have shown an interest in addressing the issue, passing a measure this year that called for the commission, the state Department of Transportation and the state Office of Energy to develop a plan for electric-vehicle charging station infrastructure along state highways.
The five-year FPL pilot, in part, is expected to include the utility owning what are known as “fast charging’ stations that would allow motorists to more quickly charge vehicles than they could, for example, at home.
Regulators needed to approve pricing-related issues, including FPL being able to charge 30 cents per kilowatt hour for motorists who charge vehicles at utility-owned sites.
Commission Chairman Gary Clark said he is taking a “cautious” approach, pointing to questions about issues such as how much motorists should pay to charge vehicles.
“The key component here is what the demand and what the energy consumption of these facilities is so that we can come back and look at a proper rate at the end of the five-year period,” Clark said. “And I think that’s kind of what this is, and the way I am looking at this is strictly as a test period.”
As a sign of the interest in the issue, a wide range of groups and businesses filed documents in the case. Among them: Tesla, Inc., the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Florida Petroleum Marketers Association, which includes businesses such as convenience stores and questioned the fairness of the proposal.
Also Tuesday, the commission approved an FPL plan that will provide 10 percent credits on the energy charge portion of monthly electric bills for some small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program, which will cost up to $16 million, would apply to small businesses that meet certain criteria, including a limit on monthly electricity usage. Also to qualify, businesses would have to be new customers, resume operations in sites that were idle for at least six months or be in federally designated “Opportunity Zones,” which generally are economically distressed areas.
Clark was the only member of the commission who voted against the proposal, questioning FPL officials about the criteria.
“You’re to be applauded for your efforts here, but what do you say to the customer who comes into your office who has a business that does not meet this criteria?” Clark asked. “They’re a small business … but let’s say that they have dipped into and spent every dime of their savings to pay their $1,000 a month electric bill to your company, and the guy who shut down next door to them comes back into business and you are going to give him a 10 percent discount. How do you explain that to that customer that’s standing in front of you?”
Christopher Chapel, FPL’s vice president of customer service, said the criteria would apply to the smallest businesses, such as small restaurants and storefronts.
“We’re trying to really get to the folks that truly need the help,” Chapel said. “The majority of the money would be the businesses within the Opportunity Zones, not the new or reopening ones. … Those are the ones that we have seen have struggled more. It’s disproportionate. They’re at about a 50 percent more likely rate to close down. So we’re trying to keep them open.”