ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When you think about converting your power to solar, you probably think it'd save you money on your monthly electricity bill.
For solar panel users used to their bills being pretty close to zero, they received an unwelcome surprise from Duke Energy in their January bill. A minimum fee increase that doubled and even tripled their costs.
Some solar power customers are getting charged for not using enough electricity. Duke Energy said they increased their fees because even if it's not being used, it costs them to have the services at the ready when needed.
"The minimum bill is essentially a minimum usage charge of $30 per month to ensure we are able to recover the costs necessary to serve our entire customer base across Florida with continued safe and reliable service," a Duke Energy spokesperson explained.
For the customers that have to foot a minimum of $30 a month, they feel wronged by the power company.
"They're charging me $30 for something I don't use," said Irv Bernheim, a solar power user. "We don't use $30 a month. We don't use any power."
Bernheim lives in Shore Acres. He has had his solar panels up and operating for about three years. His bill more than doubled because of the increased minimum use fee. He said he was not alerted about the fee increase and had to call the energy company himself to understand why he was being charged more.
"And they said they changed their policy and they're now charging $30 a month for power, whether I use it or not," he said.
The minimum fee applies to all Duke Energy customers, not just those using solar panels. For most of us, we won't notice any difference because most people use more than $30 worth of electricity each month.
Some customers switched to solar solely to save money, like Jody Mailloux. She said this bill increase had quite an impact on her bottom dollar.
"It's not saving at all, not at all," Mailloux said.
Mailloux relies on social security. She said the money to pay for the increased fee has to come from somewhere.
"Food," she said. "To get down to the nitty-gritty, any time there are more bills and more expenses, it comes down to the groceries because that's the only thing you can draw from. That's not a good thing right now because the prices for food are up quite a bit."
Duke Energy said the fixed customer charge of $12.45 is not enough to cover the costs to provide services to customers.
Despite that, solar customers find the charges unfair.
"But I don't think it's fair for them to charge us for a product we don't use," Bernheim said.
Bernheim said he not only feels he is being charged extra but is compensated unfairly for the extra power he produces.
"I know we had thousands of kilowatts extra every year. When it comes to them paying me back, it's not the same as when I buy it from them. They give me hardly anything. They're supposed to give me a credit at the end of the year for the excess. It is just peanuts really."
Minimum fees are not a new expense from utility companies. Many already have them, Florida Power and Light recently upped their minimum fee to $25, which will go into effect this summer.
The Florida Public Service Commission says about 60,000 households and businesses use solar. That's actually less than some of our southern neighbors. If you've been considering investing in the panels, Heaven Campbell from the non-profit Solar United Neighbors has some sharper insight on how to get started.
“Get connected and be in the loop in maintaining your investment because these are long-term investments. Solar's expensive, but it's a long-term investment and it's a very low-risk high return investment, so it's definitely something you want to be thinking about as what it is-- a major construction project,” Campbell said.
She said to start by doing your research. Look at resources like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or Solar United Neighbors. Second, get at least three different quotes to compare proposals from three different installers. Third, do your financing research, even talk with a financial planner. You want to have a loan payment in line with what you're already paying for your utilities, if not less, so you're replacing one with the other.
Looking to learn more about solar and how to find help with your energy bill? Try these resources: