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The power of the sun

Despite the Legislature's suspicion toward the solar industry, photovoltaic technology can power a new statewide economic expansion.

Leaders in the Legislature, governing a state still in the doldrums, have routinely mocked the intermittency of solar electrical production.

Solar is a mature, reliable technology, though. The silicon solar cell, the basis of much of today's commercial and residential solar sales, was discovered in 1953. Germany, Europe's largest economy but a country not known for its sunshine, has made a big push for solar. The International Space Station is solar powered.

The Legislature, like many other critics of solar, conflates the installation and manufacturing sectors of the industry. There are crucial distinctions between the two.

The U.S. solar manufacturing sector has struggled of late to compete with Chinese manufacturing. American firms — Solyndra, Spectra Watt and Evergreen Solar — have gone bankrupt and the industry has lost morale. To meet the challenges of international competition, expansion of Florida-based solar manufacturing would require a world-class education system — something the state lacks.

But the U.S. solar installation industry is booming. It still has an avant-garde, cool vibe that connects with youth. Forty-year-old Elon Musk, chairman of SolarCity, the largest solar panel installer in the country, has inspired Hollywood with his ingenuity and personality. Musk was the basis of the comic book character Tony Stark — genius, billionaire and playboy — in Jon Favreau's 2008 film Iron Man.

And it is in solar panel installation, rather than manufacturing, that Florida should invest its precious disposable dollars. The proliferation of distributed solar would specifically address one of the key fault lines in Florida's economy: real estate.

The installation industry could provide jobs for out-of-work electricians and roofers. It could also employ advance-degreed laborers like architects, material scientists and engineers. Leaders in these fields would ensure that the state's distributed solar system is hurricane-rated. They would make Florida's solar arrays functional but also beautiful.

Many homeowners wary of solar systems' aesthetics are pointed to Dow Chemical Company's solar shingle as an alternative to a monochrome metal sheet on their roof, but the solar shingle is only one product in what could become an entire industry of solar architecture solutions for homes and small businesses.

The covers of Better Homes and Gardens and Architectural Digest could eventually feature suggestions on how to integrate home solar design with gardens, trees, and other landscaping.

Finally, Florida is a young and sprawling state; many of its suburban neighborhoods have little historical value or tree cover. This avoids two hurdles faced by many would-be solar customers: historical district restrictions and tree shade.

Aggressive expansion of Florida's distributed solar would require state sponsorship. The best state incentive is a combination of mandates and rebates for renewables; this recipe has sustained the distributed solar industry from coast to coast.

First, the Legislature can revive former Gov. Charlie Crist's mandate for 20 percent of Florida's electricity demand to be met by renewable sources by 2020; in other words, create a renewable portfolio standard. This RPS should include wind, solar and hydropower and exclude nuclear.

Second, the new RPS should stipulate the creation of a market for Solar Renewable Energy Credits in Florida. These credits represent the environmental attributes of the electricity created; they are purchased by private utilities to meet the state's renewable standard. In a state with as much sun exposure as Florida, these credits would accumulate quickly for residential customers.

In states such as Maryland and New Jersey, the annual sale of energy credits by brokers helps defray the initial cost of purchasing a solar system for residential and small business customers.

Third, the Legislature should replenish funding for its residential solar rebate program and keep its promise to pay rebates in full to qualified customers. In 2006, the state sponsored a solar rebate program, but it depleted its budget long before all approved applicants received their reward. Thousands of qualified applicants received only a partial rebate — an embarrassment to the Florida Energy Office.

Well-run rebate programs are a win-win for customers and government. They provide a means for the state to track the cost of solar systems and engage customers longer in the sales process. Customers thus become solar stakeholders, and the state can tweak the size of its rebates based on solar prices.

Last, a strong solar industry requires leadership from the governor's office. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and California Gov. Jerry Brown have used the bully pulpit to spread the solar message and establish their states as leaders in the industry.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott should challenge the state with a vision of a solar future. The Sunshine State should not be lagging behind New Jersey and Massachusetts in terms of installed solar capacity.

Scott can learn from his predecessors on how to manage a successful public-private partnership. Enterprise Florida, a partnership for state tourism and commerce, was one of Gov. Lawton Chiles' legacies — testament to his belief that the state should be the rulemaker and the private sector should be the game player. He liked to repeat government guru David Osborne's mantra that the state should "steer, not row."

With this menu of incentives in place, the price of solar will drop for homes and small businesses. Solar installers can then get to work on Florida's economic recovery, one panel at a time.

John Coggin is a freelance writer. His first book, an authorized biography of Lawton Chiles entitled "Walkin' Lawton," will be published this fall.

The power of the sun 07/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 5:30am]

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