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Florida owes $52.7 million in unpaid solar energy rebates

LARGO — The state owes Floridians $52.7 million in unpaid solar energy rebates and has no immediate plan to honor its financial promise.

More than 15,800 people await the rebates, which were dangled before homeowners and businesses to encourage greater investment in solar energy technologies such as solar-power water heaters and electric systems.

The state's new fiscal year, which started in July, marks the second consecutive year that the Florida Legislature has refused to fund the popular program.

Some people have been on the waiting list for years, said Travis Yelverton, deputy director of the Governor's Energy Office.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Bud Chiles has made the state's stalled renewable energy plan a campaign bulwark and flagged the unfunded rebates Monday as he toured Solar Source, a solar installation company in Largo.

He called the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster an alarm bell.

"Florida consumers are getting a much better sense that fossil fuels cost more than the $3 you put in at the pump," said Chiles, who drives a Toyota Prius. "There is a real pressure mounting."

The rebate program kicked off in 2006, but soon lost political capital as lawmakers looked to close billion-dollar budget gaps.

Homeowners and businesses could apply for rebates ranging from $500 for a solar water heater to $100,000 for a commercial roof system.

"Do I think they should be funded? Absolutely," said Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, who introduced renewable energy legislation in the past to mixed results. "We just don't have any money." Bennett said solar companies that promised rebates to their customers also share some blame. "They didn't say, 'You'll only get the rebate if (the money) doesn't run out,' " he said.

Environmental activists said they weren't surprised by the program's neglect, which they linked to the Republican-led Legislature's unwillingness to promote new energy sources.

"The fact that there is no funding there demonstrates a complete lack of understanding by the leadership in the Legislature," said Cathy Harrelson, a St. Petersburg activist who organized a Hands Across the Sand offshore oil drilling protest in St. Pete Beach in June. "As I see it, the state of Florida has a contract with these people and they need to pony up."

Chiles was the first gubernatorial candidate to outline an energy plan. In June, he vowed to create a renewable energy loan fund and require utilities to set targets to conserve energy. He also called on Florida power companies to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, a plan Gov. Charlie Crist touted early in his tenure, but could not get through the Legislature.

In Largo on Monday, Chiles lambasted the Legislature for paying deference to the state's powerful energy companies. "I don't know any industries that are more dinosaur-like," he said.

"You guys are like the messiah to the clean energy industry," said Wayne Wallace, president of Solar Source, before handing over a $50 campaign contribution and a promise to vote for Chiles.

Democrat Alex Sink proposed a similar energy plan last month that called for a "renewable portfolio standard," which would require electric companies to use a certain amount of clean energy to fuel their power plants by a set date.

Last week Republican Bill McCollum unveiled his plan, which calls for letting the free market sort out "expensive" wind and solar energy sources, partnering with private business to develop electric plug-in vehicles and removing regulatory barriers to expedite biofuel production.

His primary rival, Rick Scott, has not detailed his energy ideas. Scott has said he does not believe in climate change. He supports offshore drilling and expanding nuclear power.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Florida owes $52.7 million in unpaid solar energy rebates 08/02/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 2, 2010 11:22pm]

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