TAMPA — Four years ago, Doug McCree couldn't imagine fulfilling his employees' wishes for covered parking.
But when a business associate prodded him to explore putting a solar canopy over the parking lot, wishful thinking turned hopeful. Solar developers proposed a plan combined with energy efficiency measures that would reduce the company's electric bill by more than 80 percent.
On Monday, McCree, the president and CEO of First Housing Development Corp. of Florida, fired up a new solar and net zero energy system on its 17,000-square-foot, 8-year-old facility at 107 S Willow Ave.
"The environmental thing is important to us. But as I looked at putting the money in and talking to my board, I had to make the case that this was a good economic use of our capital," McCree said. "It really can work."
First Housing, a commercial real estate financing company, is the latest among a growing number of commercial operations in Florida and across the country seeing the benefit of turning to solar and energy efficiency as a means to cut electricity costs.
A May report by GTM Research, which monitors solar and energy efficiency, noted solar nationwide accounted for 74 percent of all new U.S. electric capacity installed in the first quarter of this year.
Part of the growth is driven by the falling cost of solar panels combined with a 30 percent federal tax credit that expires at the end of 2016, making solar more affordable.
That prompted Great Bay Distributors, a major Anheuser-Busch beer distributor in Largo, to include what will be the largest commercial solar array in Florida in the construction of its new facility in St. Petersburg.
What is unusual about First Housing is the company decided to convert an existing facility into a net zero energy building, which often is viewed as too costly of an enterprise.
First Housing employs 37 workers at the facility, along with a dozen workers of a tenant.
But McCree said that after looking at the numbers, the company determined it would reduce its annual electric bill from $36,000 to $6,000.
First Housing installed a 150-kilowatt solar system at its facility — about five to six times the size of the typical array at a residential home — for about $3 a watt, or about $500,000. The company also added an air conditioning monitoring system and LED lighting.
"Whatever the electricity rates are increasing to over the next 25 years, they won't impact me," McCree said.
That's the message McCree's solar developer, Scott McIntyre, president of Solar Energy Management, presses the public to recognize about solar and energy efficiency measures on existing or new buildings. But the benefits extend beyond First Housing, McIntyre said, as the project employed 20 workers and will save 4,760 tons of carbon emissions.
"This type of thing is not the future of Florida," McIntyre said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.