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Plant City farmer lassos solar energy

Jon Butts rolls out a grill that uses the sun’s heat. He has spent $31,500 on the solar system that helps to run his Plant City farm.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Jon Butts rolls out a grill that uses the sun’s heat. He has spent $31,500 on the solar system that helps to run his Plant City farm.

Jon Butts harvests all the energy he can from the sun.

He uses it to heat his water, cool his food, power his golf carts and run an irrigation pump on his 54-acre farm in Plant City.

He recently cooked a ham (from a wild pig he caught) outside in a solar oven.

Four years ago, Butts and his wife, Debbie, became the first to attach a solar system to Tampa Electric's grid, which serves Hillsborough and parts of Polk, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Each year since then, more homes have started converting rays to electricity, with 128 solar customers with the company as of this year. Progress Energy, the state's second largest utility provider with 1.6 million customers, counts more than 500 customers who are tapped into solar energy.

Some were enticed by a state rebate that started in 2006. But tight budgets dried up funding in the popular program, which now owes Floridians $52.7 million in rebates. Gov. Charlie Crist said last week that he hopes to use some stimulus money for refunds.

The federal government also offers a 30 percent tax credit to encourage people to install solar systems.

But even with incentives, turning a profit on solar systems can be complex. The Buttses' farm, a sustainable-living community with four more adults, didn't generate enough income to take advantage of the federal credit on their tax returns. And the couple installed their solar panels just months before the state rebate took effect.

For them and others in Hills­borough, it's not all about the money. It's a matter of principle. From his farm, Butts can hear trains filled with coal pass en route to power companies. He didn't want any part of that. So far, he has spent about $31,500 for his solar setup.

"We couldn't go on the way we were going," he said.

• • •

As prices dropped for solar systems in recent years, more people nationwide put up panels to capture sunlight. In the United States, more than 107,000 systems were installed in 2009, an increase of 18 percent from the year before, according to a report by the government-supported Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

In a state-by-state ranking of the solar systems installed, Florida jumped from 16th in 2008 to third last year, behind California and New Jersey, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The leap was attributed in part to a Florida Power & Light plant in South Florida.

Still, the state's home electricity use is among the highest in the country, partly because of summer air-conditioning and electricity used for home heating in winter. Florida gets nearly 50 percent of its electricity from natural gas and about 30 percent from coal, according to the Department of Energy's website on data collected for 2008.

Solar energy still accounts for a minuscule portion.

In the past four years, Tampa Electric's solar customers have inched upward, though. In 2009, the company added 50 such customers to the grid. This year, there have been 55.

Most are residential, with about a sixth commercial. They have attached photovoltaic cells, more commonly known as solar panels, to their rooftops. Tampa Electric supplies a bidirectional meter, which measures energy collected from sunshine and energy used from burning fossil fuels.

Excess energy generated from the sun is fed back into the company's grid. Customers get a credit instead of their monthly bill if their panels feed more energy into the grid than they use.

For the past two months, Butts has gotten a credit and paid nothing. The month before that, he had to pay about $10. At the end of the year, if Tampa Electric discovers that he has generated more energy than he took in, the company will send him a check. But no one has ever reached that point, called "net zero."

"It's a long-term investment," said Howard Bryant, a conservation and environmental manager for Tampa Electric. "You're not going to get rich doing this. What you are going to do is save resources."

Sun rays aren't the strongest here in the Sunshine State, Bryant said. Afternoon storms and hazy days with high humidity cause rays to reflect haphazardly, he said. Southwest states such as Arizona or New Mexico capture more sunshine.

Progress Energy — with a service area that includes Pinellas, parts of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, as well as areas surrounding Orlando — added 200 solar customers in 2009. Another 200 have tapped into the grid so far this year, said Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy.

"Folks have really started to embrace the technology," Jacobs said. But like Tampa Electric's customers, none have yet made more energy than they've used.

Prices have dropped on solar panels and would drop further if Florida could attract a manufacturer, said Sherri Shields, assistant director at the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research institute of the University of Central Florida. Incentives are necessary for most people to offset the high cost of installation, she said, but ultimately Florida needs to implement policies that support renewable energy.

• • •

One recent sunny morning, an arrow on Butts' meter showed he was making electricity.

"But wait until the irrigation pump kicks on," he said. That's his biggest user.

His first solar panels had generated enough to cover electricity in his home, he said, but not the farm. So three months ago he covered a second barn roof in solar panels.

Nightmares spurred him to do it, he said. He'd heard about mountaintop removal, a form of mining used in the Appalachians in which mountain ridges are blasted off to get to coal seams. That doesn't sit well with Butts' memories of hiking trips with his wife on the Appalachian Trail.

But he doesn't expect the money he saves — or hopefully makes — from going solar will offset his installation costs anytime soon.

He paid about $23,000 to install his first solar system, not counting his own work. The 48 panels he added three months ago cost about $8,500. The panels dropped a quarter in price from those first panels.

With income from his farm, he gets by. He owns older model cars, drives as little as possible and does without air conditioning.

The green lifestyle, he said, "it's just a priority."

Reach Elisabeth Parker at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Plant City farmer lassos solar energy 09/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 5:30am]

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