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Perspective: Solar power is on the rise

Polypack, a Pinellas Park manufacturer of shrink-wrap machines, installed a solar system that cut the electric bill from about $4,800 to $300 in April. The company owner also owns the collection in the adjacent Tampa Bay Automobile Museum.

Courtesy of Polypack

Polypack, a Pinellas Park manufacturer of shrink-wrap machines, installed a solar system that cut the electric bill from about $4,800 to $300 in April. The company owner also owns the collection in the adjacent Tampa Bay Automobile Museum.

Jim Fenton runs the Florida Solar Energy Center.

He's the state's point man on all things solar. The center, created by the Legislature in 1975 and operated at the University of Central Florida, is responsible for conducting research, testing and certifying solar systems used in the state.

To hear Fenton talk about solar, it would seem a no-brainer that the state should invest more in the technology and allow consumers the opportunity to put solar on buildings with the abundance of flat roofs. Florida imports virtually all of its fuel, some $50 billion a year that goes out of state. The sun, Fenton and others say, offers enormous economic potential for the Sunshine State but here's the rub: Florida's utilities say the solar isn't economically feasible, can't provide electricity at night and is weakened when it's cloudy or rains.

In addition, private, rooftop solar reduces demand, the utilities argue, shifting cost to maintain the electric grid to middle class and low-income users.

But there is one thing both sides of the solar debate agree on: Solar and other technologies are posing a threat to the utilities' business model of centralized power.

"Today, a variety of disruptive technologies are emerging that may compete with utility-provided services," the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry organization said in a 2013 report. "Such technologies include solar photovoltaics (PV), battery storage ..."

The concern about solar didn't exist so much even just a half dozen years ago when solar proved too costly to make sense for most anyone. But times have changed. Plummeting solar panel costs combined with federal government incentives, including a 30 percent tax credit, have increasing made solar affordable.

• Two weeks ago, Great Bay Distributors, Florida's largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products, announced that it would top its new 267,787-square-foot St. Petersburg facility with the state's largest private solar array at 1.5 megawatts. The system will reduce Great Bay's electric bill by as much as 40 percent.

• Even government is seeing the benefits of solar. In 2012, Bay Pines VA Healthcare System installed what it touts as a 1.8 megawatt solar array that is saving $189,000 a year in electricity costs.

• Polypack, a Pinellas Park manufacturer, installed a solar system last year that is about a fifth of the size of Great Bay's. The system cut Polypack's electric bill from about $4,800 to $212 in March and $300 in April.

Though the federal tax credit expires at the close of 2016, Fenton projects that the price of solar will at that point fall below the average price of residential electricity in Florida. And by 2025, residential electricity in Florida will be twice as much as solar.

Fenton says more could be done if the state looked at other ways to invest consumer money than some of the conventional methods it continues to employ.

The state, for instance, has approved a new natural gas pipeline for $3 billion, money Fenton says could buy 3.1 gigawatts of solar or about 2 percent of Florida's electricity generation. It could be up and running by 2016, he says.

But for the utilities, solar isn't as easy as it is for Great Bay, Bay Pines or Polypack.

Tamara Waldmann, manager of Florida cogeneration and renewables for Duke Energy, says solar simply is "not continuous, not consistent."

And when private entities contribute solar to the grid, Waldmann says it affects the "quality" of the power coming into the system. The grid isn't receiving the consistent power that comes from coal, natural gas and nuclear baseload generators, she said.

Fenton says the real concern of the utilities is the addition of generation from the likes of the large rooftop generators means the power companies aren't getting consistent revenue. He said policy can be devised to make the utilities whole because "I truly believe everybody should pay their fair share."

But, Fenton argues, the utilities simply don't want to lose money.

"The truth of the matter from the utilities perspective, (solar users are) just buying less electricity," Fenton says. "Your electric bill would be lower and you would send less money to the utility."

So why aren't there more Great Bays and Bay Pines?

The falling cost of solar increasing appears to be opening the market for it.

And companies such as California-based Solar City, which lease panels to consumers so they avoid the up front costs of the panels, are looking for opportunities in the Sunshine State to offer deals to commercial and residential consumers.

But Florida laws support the maintenance of the utilities' monopoly control over electricity generation. That has hampered more widespread deployment of solar.

The owner of a shopping center, for instance, cannot install solar on the roof of the complex and sell power to tenants. Excess power generated on a business' own building or a homeowner's property can be sold to the power company, but only a utility can sell power to a third party.

State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, wants to change that.

Dudley, just as Fenton, would like to see broader use of solar. He has drafted an initiative he hopes to get on the 2016 ballot to deregulate renewable energy production, in particular to stimulate more solar energy. By Dudley's figures, his initiative would create some 50,000 jobs while reducing the state's dependence on imported fuels.

"It would make for greater consumer choice, energy independence and greater security," Dudley says.

But if solar continues to drop in price, the Great Bays of the world might continue to do it other their own — something the utilities must face.

Perspective: Solar power is on the rise 05/23/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2014 3:13pm]

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