Spencer Kass no longer pays Tampa Electric to power his office building. The utility pays him.
For each of the past 12 months, the electric meter on Kass' 2,600-square-foot building in downtown Tampa registered "net zero" usage.
In fact, the solar-powered building produces so much power that the electricity Kass doesn't sell back to Tampa Electric he gives away to owners of electric cars.
"This building is in an elite group of Tampa Electric customers because it produces more energy than it uses," said Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the utility. "He's one of the few in our territory to maximize the technology to do that."
Of Tampa Electric's 675,000 customers, Jacobs said 30 are regularly net zero energy users and just five of those are businesses.
But if Kass' experience is any indication, there could be many more on the horizon.
Increasingly, the falling cost of solar panels makes converting the sun's rays into energy more practical for businesses and individual homeowners.
In Pinellas County, contractors are building a solar-powered net zero energy commercial building in downtown St. Petersburg and a similarly equipped 25-unit townhouse complex in Dunedin.
Utility companies such as Tampa Electric and Progress Energy Florida offer about $1 million to $2 million in rebates to homeowners and businesses each year to support projects like these as part of their energy conservation efforts.
Still, pushing energy conservation is something of a double-edged sword for utilities: They make money by selling power, not buying it.
Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the small rebates the utilities offer each year from fees charged to customers need to grow to encourage more use of energy-saving technology like that at Kass' business. But she said the utilities have fought serious expansion of energy efficiency and renewable programs because their business model focuses on building large power plants.
"That whole business model no longer makes sense," Glickman said. "The ground is shifting beneath (the utilities) whether they like it or not."
Jacobs, the spokeswoman for Tampa Electric, said that while the day may come when masses of homeowners and businesses operate on solar or other technologies, "we're a long way from that."
Even with the success of Kass' operation, Jacobs said there remains an overwhelming need for centralized power.
"As a utility, we support the research and development of renewable energy technologies," Jacobs said. "They hold great promise."
But, she noted, "the sun does not shine at night. So what do you do? You rely on traditional forms of electricity. And we're required to have enough capability to serve all customers 24 hours a day."
Kass, however, sees where the state and the utilities could help increase energy efficiency and use of renewable technology and bolster the state's economy, despite any limitations of solar. He points to the $1.1 billion customers are paying in advance for Progress Energy Florida's proposed $24 billion Levy County nuclear plant, a facility that might never get built.
"All this talk about paying for nuclear plants in advance … if all that money had gone into solar retrofitting, solar products, you would have jobs you can't believe," Kass said.
Kass became one of the first of Tampa Electric's customers to get a rebate, enabling him to retrofit with solar the building where his companies have operated for the past 10 years.
"I'm not some big environmentalist person," Kass said. "For me, it's just straight dollars and cents. People say solar isn't ready for prime time yet, but we're doing it."
Pointing to papers on an office conference table, he smiled and said, "There's our bill. It's zero."
Here's how it works:
Kass' solar system is connected to the electric grid. The system powers the building, and any excess is sent to Tampa Electric.
When that happens, the utility adds a credit to the company's monthly electric bill. At the end of the year, Kass gets a check for the power he's given back.
However, by state law, the utility pays him at a wholesale price, even though Kass would pay retail for any power he might have to buy.
Kass, a 38-year-old vice president of Landmarc Contracting at Howard Avenue and Cypress Street, said his 20-employee company spent $60,000 on a solar electric system for the building, offset by a grand of almost $20,000 from Tampa Electric.
He expects to recover the cost in six years.
"Then, it's free and clear," Kass said.
Landmarc, Kass said, tries to show its customers the benefits of adding various energy-saving technologies to their homes and businesses by adding those components to their office building.
The rooftop solar panels combine with a tankless water-heating system, tinted windows and LED lighting to reduce his electric demand.
Kass said he enjoys the "pleasure" of having a zero balance on his monthly utility bill.
And that's not all. He also won an award for conserving water by using a special low-flow system, drip irrigation that waters only plants, and the tankless water heating.
His water bill: $2 to $3 a month.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.