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Following the Currents that Guide Florida's Future
Should the Sunshine State do more to support the development of solar energy?
Frank Bentayou's picture
Frank Bentayou
Facilitator
Former Gov. Charlie Crist suggested that, by 2020, the state could generate a fifth of its energy from the power of the sun. New state policies and carefully targeted financial support from the government, Crist said, would jump-start our solar industry. That was in 2009, but legislators have rejected his plan ever since. Florida’s and the nation’s fiscal pain and a popular uprising against government efforts to move the economy forward have conspired to keep Florida nearer the bottom of states embracing solar power. Should Florida invest in building this new industry or permit the market to guide its energy future? Four opinion leaders share their views
Colleen Kettles's picture
Colleen Kettles
Workplace development and training, Florida Solar Energy Center

Florida’s standing in the area of solar energy development has gone from a position of strength to one of near abandonment.  Once a leader in the field of solar energy, Florida is now an also ran to places like New Jersey, Tennessee, and Oregon. Florida is 18th out of 23 ranked states in photovoltaic installations for the first quarter of 2012, sliding from 14th in the previous quarter. Given the current lack of activity, Florida will probably not make the list next time around.

Support for solar energy makes sense for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the positive environmental attributes that come with renewable, clean energy generation. However, the most important reason to support solar energy is the economic development potential that comes with a robust solar energy infrastructure. Consider that for every one MegaWatt of solar energy capacity that is constructed, 50 jobs are created. That holds true for utility-scale solar plants as well as aggregated residential and small commercial facilities. It holds true for solar-electric (photovoltaic) systems as well as solar-thermal (water and swimming pool heating) systems. This is domestic energy production.

Support for solar energy is paramount for the market transformation that will be necessary if solar energy is to realize its full potential in the Sunshine State. This support can take many forms. It is not just financial support. But if it does come in the form of financial support, it needs to be sustainable and predictable. The last five years of government and utility rebates for solar energy have too often left consumers with broken promises and the solar industry with broken dreams.

The reform of energy policies that pre-date the era of solar energy will position Florida as a state that welcomes solar expansion. Prohibitions against third-party power purchase agreements and conjunctive billing have prevented private investment in solar. Need determination policies for new power generation have hampered utility investment in solar. Community associations and building departments can be formidable obstacles to a streamlined solar installation process.
There need be no losers in the creation of a sound solar energy policy for Florida.

The Secretary of the US Department of Energy announced the SunShot Imitative in 2011. Deliberately modeled after the Moon Shot program of the Kennedy administration, SunShot purports to make solar energy cost competitive with other forms of energy by the end of the decade.  It is a multi pronged approach to reducing the installed cost of solar energy systems, including the adoption of exemplary policies and best practices. It may be a long shot in Florida, but we need to give it a shot.

Robert Stonerock's picture
Robert Stonerock
Physician and President, Florida Renewable Energy Association

A noticeable disparity between public interest in renewable energy development and Florida’s current legislative policy was evident from a recent poll of registered voters conducted for the Florida Renewable Energy Association. Strong support was shown for policies that have become commonplace in many parts of the country yet have largely been ignored by Florida lawmakers.

Of those surveyed, 69 percent support legislation requiring utilities to produce a greater percentage of electricity from renewable sources. This policy known as a renewable portfolio standard has been adopted in 37 states. In January 2009, a draft rule developed by the Florida Public Service Commission was submitted to the state legislature but was never enacted, and the legislature eventually abandoned the proposal.

We conducted this survey because it’s important that our elected officials understand where the public interest is on this critical issue. Clearly, the legislature is not on the same page with Florida voters or the rest of the country.

Despite difficult economic times, 57 percent of survey respondents were willing to pay at least 50 cents more per month on their electric bill to help fund renewable energy development. Such a plan would generate more than $50 million annually to fund incentives to manufacture and install renewable energy systems. This type of public benefit fund is used in 19 other states but has been rejected by Florida state legislators.

The issue receiving the strongest voter support -- 80 percent -- was allowing private renewable energy companies to sell electricity directly to consumers and businesses. Two bills, SB1106 and HB 779, designed to achieve this important feature were presented in the 2012 legislative session but died in committees.

The survey showed that 67 percent rated the Florida Legislature as doing either a fair, poor, or very poor job in encouraging the development of renewable energy. The people of Florida understand how developing renewables can help to create jobs, control future energy costs and maintain a clean environment. It’s an issue beyond ideology. It’s a basic responsibility that, up to now, our legislature has ignored. Those interested may learn more from FREA, a nonprofit organization that promotes development of clean energy through public education, political advocacy and industry networking opportunities, at www.cleanenergyflorida.org

Tom Rooney's picture
Tom Rooney
Republican Member of Congress representing Florida District 16

Florida has long been short-changed by the failure at the federal level to develop an all-of-the-above strategy for energy production and independence. While President Obama has talked about comprehensive energy solutions, his actions have not matched his rhetoric. His administration has wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on misguided giveaways to failing companies while blocking the production of American energy. He has imposed new regulations that have slowed natural gas and oil production, and has blocked construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The fact is, we need to promote and incentivize the growth and development of both traditional and alternative energy sources in order to achieve energy independence. By significantly expanding American energy production, we can:

·         Enhance our national security by reducing dependence on countries that wish us harm;

·         Create jobs right away in the energy sector and related industries; and,

·         Grow our economy and help the private sector create jobs by reducing the burden of high fuel prices.

I have introduced a comprehensive jobs plan, the Restore America Act, which includes a section to create jobs, drive down energy costs and improve American security by expanding American energy production. My bill opens new areas for energy exploration and development, and gets rid of new regulations that have blocked natural gas and oil shale production. It also expedites the permitting of new and expanded nuclear power facilities. Removing these obstacles – and allowing construction of the Keystone Pipeline – would go a long way toward making our country energy independent.

Here in Florida, we’re also making tremendous strides toward developing alternative energy sources. We’ve seen that the solution isn’t giving away millions of taxpayer dollars to companies like Solyndra, and it’s not imposing top-down mandates from the federal government. Our successes have come from giving companies incentives to invest and build in our state, and from establishing sound public-private partnerships. From solar energy development to the production of biofuels from switchgrass, our state has helped lead the way. The last thing Florida needs is for the federal government to impose new requirements or take away the flexibility that has allowed it attract companies investing in alternative energy.

Carrie Cullen Hitt's picture
Carrie Cullen Hitt
Vice President, Solar Energy Industries Association

In Florida, solar energy meets a number of criteria that would be attractive to consumers and investors who would want a solar industry to develop there. The criteria include the state’s utility rates, its hours and intensity of sunshine and the growing energy demand. In fact, our association looks closely at Florida every year in search of industry progress. But Florida has a number of challenges.

Many states have used corporate, property, sales and other tax incentives as well as additional mechanisms to help attract investors who operate in this industry.  What we’ve seen is that Florida does not daw those investors. Not only does the state not provide the tax incentives and other business support many other states have embraced, but it has other institutional barriers.

A person who wants to develop or install solar energy devices on homes or factories or shopping malls needs to have a contract with customers, a power-purchase agreement that allows that person to design and build and put that system in place. While many states allow those kinds of agreements, Florida does not. So, contractually, a developer is unable to deal directly with the customer, the power user. Florida says the utility has to be the one to sell the power, so another party gets to tap into any profits, diminishing the value of the investment.

Typically, a state has to have at least some incentives, legal and statutory features and methods of business support in place to permit solar energy companies to get the kind of market penetration they need for success. A state can pull some investors in if it doesn’t have everything companies want, but it must provide some of those needs and at attractive levels. Often states or utilities have a fund supported by energy rate payers or tax payers. These funds pay back companies and users -- whether home owners or business sites -- a certain percentage of their investment in order to lower the cost of manufacture and installation.

Florida has a fund, but there’s only a $25 million cap statewide. It’s pretty small. New York State’s is $120 million a year. That helps. Some people refer to these funds as sources of subsidy, but we think of them in terms of developing long-term industries and the great value of solar power.

So, developing appropriate tax incentives and establishing investment funds are two ways the state could encourage more solar power in Florida. A third way is by streamlining regulatory barriers, making it easier to connect solar power systems to the grid, for instance. Are there rules in place? Or does a developer have to sit around for a couple of years hoping the state legislature will come up with accommodations?

Our association has more than 1,000 members, from the folks who make solar panels to the installers who put them on your roof. Florida looks like a great market, and we monitor it closely. In fact, we’re having our national conference, expecting to bring 25,000 to 30,000 people to Orlando in early September this year. We’re hoping that draws more attention to how attractive Florida could be for a solar energy industry.

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