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What percent of the electricity customers in the Sunshine State own a renewable system? Think tiny

Solar panels
Only one tenth of one percent of all Florida utility customers owned a renewable generating system in 2015, according to new data released Tuesday by the Florida Public Service Commission.

That number -- .11 percent -- while modest, is something to brag about -- according to a news release by the Florida Public Service Commission released on Tuesday. The commission touts the fact that of the 7.9 million utility customers in Florida, 11,626 of them operated customer-owned renewable energy systems -- a 36 percent increase over the 8,571 users in 2014. Those users include customers like Whole Foods,  Florida Museum of Natural History, Ace Hardware, and IKEA which have installed their own solar photovoltaic panels.

Solar PV panels continue to be the most popular renewable choice, the PSC said. Also increasing is the use of wind turbines and anaerobic digestion -- a multi-step process that uses microorganisms to break down organic material to form methane and carbon dioxide gases, which are then used to generate electricity.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, installed solar PV system prices dropped by nearly 12 percent in 2015 as utility companies and customers installed 41 megawatts of solar electric capacity in Florida last year. If you combine the solar PV systems owned by customers with the majority that is owned by the state's utilities, Florida ranks the state 14th in the country in installed solar capacity, the group said.

The PSC's policy has given the utility industry the advantage over customers and competitors when it comes to installing renewable systems. In December 2014, the PSC slashed its energy-efficiency goals by more than 90 percent at the behest of the utility industry, which argued rewarding customers to save energy was too expensive. The commission also ended the solar rebate program at the end of 2015.

The utilities sought the cuts to energy efficiency and the solar rebate programs by arguing that, with the decline in natural gas prices, it was cheaper for them to produce a kilowatt of electricity than to save it. As a regulated monopoly, the utilities are allowed to profit off the energy they produce, but they cannot make a profit if customers don't use their electricity.

Although Florida lags behind nearly a dozen smaller states in renewable generation, the PSC boasted about the increase in customer-owned utilities in a press release on Tuesday which said that "since 2008, the number of renewable systems has increased more than twenty-fold."

“Our rules assist customers who want to use renewables, and who also want to be connected to the grid,” said PSC Chairman Julie Brown, who was one of two votes against reducing energy efficiency goals. “We’ve helped accelerate renewable energy use without compromising service reliability.”

Here's how the numbers break down:

* IOUs -- Of the 7.8 million customers of investor-owned utilities such as Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co., and Gulf Power, .11 percent operate their own renewable energy systems.

* Municipal electrics -- Of the 1.5 million customers of a municipal electric system in Florida, .11 percent operate renewable systems.

* Rural electrics -- Of the 1.1 million customers of rural electric cooperatives, .13 percent operate their own renewable energy systems.

Environmental groups have tried and failed to get the PSC to strengthen its energy efficiency rules in Florida to match other states. They argue that conservation measures would save customers money if utility companies don't have to keep building expensive new power plants to meet the demand for new electricity.

They have also sought stronger support for solar programs to give consumers more choice and energy freedom. In August, an amendment on the ballot will ask voters to approve Amendment 4,  a plan to reduce taxes on solar and other renewable energy devices.

Meanwhile, Florida's utilities have aggressively fought to retain control of solar energy generation in the state. They pumped more than $7 million into a plan to keep from the November ballot a plan to allow customers who generate their own renewable energy from entering into purchase agreements to sell their power to neighboring customers, bypassing the utility.

A rival utility-back proposal will be on the November ballot, however. It would add to the state Constitution existing rules that allow Floridians with solar equipment on their property to sell the excess energy their systems generate back to power companies.