Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Business

St. Petersburg man finds challenges high in taking solar mainstream

Just four years ago, Brian Hartley entered the solar power business expecting renewable energy in Florida to become one of the state's growth industries.

Hartley, owner of Solar Engineering Inc. in St. Petersburg, did not see the growth he envisioned, but he has emerged as a leader in the city in the development of renewable energy projects.

The 30-year-old business owner is completing St. Petersburg's first zero-energy commercial building that uses a solar carport to power the building. He's in the final stages of reaching lease agreements with two of the three planned tenants for the 5,000-square-foot building at 1950 Central Ave.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with Hartley, who also runs other engineering businesses, about his efforts to develop solar projects, despite a growing frustration in the industry about the state's lack of support for renewable energy. Florida lags behind other states, including New Jersey, Massachusetts and Ohio, in development of solar.

Here's what Hartley, who got his solar construction license in 2008, had to say about his business and what's needed to increase solar development in Florida.

Why solar?

At that point in time (2008), you know — solar is very expensive — back in that time frame, a lot of time was being spent on the research and development. The state of Florida had some incentives. We thought some more programs would come about.

What types of solar work does your company do?

We predominantly focus on commercial projects … whether it be carports or rooftop solar projects. Of late, in the last year or so, I've tried to focus on the carport model.

How many commercial solar installations do you do in a year?

Three to five. Work is slow. The biggest challenge is the financial side of it. I still think it's a little too expensive. Each marketplace kind of defines their energy costs differently.

What does it cost to put solar on rooftops or carports?

Certainly, a carport is a little more expensive. You have the infrastructure you have to build. And, obviously, the larger the system, the cheaper it is. But it's anywhere from $3 per watt to $6 per watt.

Another way to look at it is, for a 5,000-square-foot building … it would be maybe $250,000. That's before a rebate from Progress Energy and a 30 percent tax reduction from the federal government.

So after the incentives and tax breaks for a business, that would be about $100,000 to $125,000?

About $100,000 would be a fair representation. You can probably see a 50 to 75 percent reduction in cost if you use the benefits from the government and from the rebates.

How much of an electrical bill savings does that produce?

A 50-kilowatt system would probably produce in the neighborhood of $20,000 a year.

What kind of grants are available?

Progress Energy has $1 million it allocates for these grants.

What kind of maintenance does a solar system require?

They're very low maintenance. They're a pretty durable product. They will withstand a pretty good beating. You should wash them down. Salt and bird droppings will accumulate. Any shade will affect the integrity of the panel. Once or twice a year, wash them down.

Do you use solar?

My whole family does. My sister, my brother, my parents.

Why do we not see more solar on commercial rooftops in Florida?

That question, in my opinion, is directly attributed to the expense. In California and other states, legislatures have provided incentives to make it a viable solution. Florida and the Southeast, in general, are laggards in that regard.

Why don't we see more solar used during new construction of commercial and even residential buildings?

I almost think it's a lack of education. Somehow, from an education standpoint, the government and the general public don't see the benefits.

What are the barriers to getting more solar development?

I think the biggest barriers are in regulation. I think if Gov. Scott or even someone on the federal level had the desire or forethought … at the end of the day it shifts away from the monopoly utility companies have.

Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.

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