Solar power in the Sunshine State has exploded in the past three years, providing millions of dollars in new projects and hundreds of jobs even as most of Florida's economy withered.
The state's planned investment in solar energy crossed the $1 billion mark last week with the announcement of Florida Power & Light's 75-megawatt Babcock Ranch project, billed as the largest photovoltaic array in the world. FPL has three other large solar plants already under construction. Small solar installations have tripled in less than three years, and Progress Energy customers recently surpassed 1 megawatt of solar installed. Nearly 250 megawatts of solar projects have been announced statewide.
By this time next year, Florida will have more solar power installed than every state except California, said Eric Silagy, vice president and chief development officer for FPL.
"Solar is starting to come of age," he said.
It's an enormous leap, considering Florida ranked dead last just a few years ago, said Philip Fairey, deputy director of the Florida Solar Energy Center. Just three years ago, there was probably less than a megawatt installed statewide.
"We were a nobody," Fairey said. "There was more solar power in New Jersey."
If this is an industry just starting to come of age, then what's next?
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Florida's solar industry hopes that solar can do for Florida what computers did for Silicon Valley.
If that seems farfetched, consider this: The 110 megawatts of solar that FPL has under construction will cost $738 million and employ 660 construction workers. For all that, the projects will generate only one-fifth of 1 percent of the power used by the utility's 4.5 million customers.
If FPL supplied just 3 percent of its power from solar, the investment will run into the billions of dollars and put thousands of people to work. What if other utilities around the country, spurred by new renewable energy requirements, did the same? And what if those solar panels were made right here in Florida? That could mean tens of thousands of permanent, high-paying jobs, Silagy predicted.
"Florida is, I think, at a crossroads," Silagy said. "There is a window of opportunity where we can really be a leader in the nation and around the globe on solar power."
The renewable energy lobby offers tantalizing estimates of just how green jobs could transform the economy. The national solar industry group estimates that solar could provide 440,000 permanent jobs nationwide by 2016. The Vote Solar Initiative, an advocacy group based in San Francisco, estimates that Florida could see 85,500 jobs in solar if the Legislature adopts Gov. Charlie Crist's goal of getting 20 percent of the state's power from renewable sources by 2020.
The developer behind Babcock Ranch, which will include 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial and retail space, is already negotiating with solar companies that may want to locate in Florida.
The state solar industry hopes to get a piece of the rapid expansion of solar nationwide. Solar power grew 17 percent, its third straight year of record growth, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The installation of grid-connected solar panels surged 81 percent. Solar panel manufacturing was up 65 percent.
Some of that growth has already found its way to Florida. Rachel Doll, marketing director at Solar Source, a Largo installer and distributor, said the solar photovoltaic business remains strong. Solar Source added eight people last year, she said.
Silagy wants more. Manufacturing, research and development could bring tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, he said. Florida has to set itself apart from other states aggressively courting the same solar companies.
"We have an opportunity to do something here in Florida," Silagy said. "But if we don't act, then it will be in states like Michigan and Minnesota and Texas and Arizona."
Others share his sense of urgency.
"We're in the fourth quarter of the game," said Jerry Karnas, Florida Climate Project director for Environmental Defense. "We're not in Hail Mary pass time, but we certainly need the hurry-up offense."
Not everyone agrees, though, on what the next play should be.
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Florida's solar industry owes its recent success to policies enacted in the past three years.
First, in 2006, the state started offering a rebate of $4 a watt for solar panels. The rebate cut the cost of installation by half or more, paying homeowners $20,000 for a 5-kilowatt system. Since then, the amount of solar on the state's electric grid grew to more than 3 megawatts, and there are thousands of backlogged applications for rebates. Then, starting in 2007, Crist began pushing a series of measures that would force the state's utilities to slash greenhouse gas emissions and get more of their power from renewable sources.
Now, lobbyists are peddling a slew of new policies in Tallahassee, hoping to kick-start an even bigger boom. Proposals include strong renewable energy targets, premium prices for solar electricity, tax incentives for solar companies, rebates for consumers and firm backing from state regulators. Similar debates are playing out in states across the country, and in the nation's capital.
In the next month, the state Legislature will decide which policies will win out.
The issue has attracted farmers, developers, small-business owners, big businesses like Florida Crystals and the usual complement of utility lobbyists and environmentalists.
Riddled with acronyms and technical jargon, the debate can often be impenetrable, with millions of dollars worth of jobs and investment in the balance. The Legislature is debating Crist's "20 by 2020" renewable goal, and utilities are pushing for a "clean" goal that would include new nuclear power.
A policy known as feed-in tariffs also is gaining traction, pushed by a renewable energy lobby that includes solar installers and manufacturers. The tariffs force utilities to pay more for electricity that customers generated from solar panels than those customers pay for electricity generated by the utility's power plants. Gainesville recently adopted the tariffs, and advocates want to see it enacted statewide.
The state also could extend the policy that paved the way for FPL's 110 megawatts. Passed last year, it allows the Public Service Commission to approve renewable energy projects up to a certain limit, even if those projects cost more than fossil fuel plants.
Despite the enthusiasm for solar, it still has a long way to go before it displaces fossil and nuclear fuels. Consider that the state's three largest utilities — Progress Energy, Tampa Electric and FPL — have seen a few hundred customers install a combined solar capacity of close to 3 megawatts. The utilities together serve nearly 7 million customers and have nearly 40,000 megawatts worth of power plants that run on coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear fuel.
"The true test will be when people look out of the window of a skyscraper in their city and see their communities transform," Karnas said. "It's when the landscape, what people can see from their windows, changes. That's when we'll know we have succeeded."
Asjylyn Loder can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3117.