Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Right and left neighbors meet in the middle on solar

How did two neighbors — a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat — find common ground on an unlikely topic: the use of rooftop solar to power our homes?

We traveled very different paths. Jerry served as Lake Wales' fire chief when three 2004 hurricanes devastated our community within a 46-day period. With local power out for up to 20 days in parts of town and a severe gasoline shortage, his lasting takeaway was the need for self-sufficiency. He replaced a generator with a solar and battery array sufficient to run a portion of his home on an emergency basis.

Rudy, an engineer by training and a lifelong environmentalist, chose to power his remote home in Maine in the 1990s with an early standalone wind and solar system, and went on to fully power a later home with a system tied to the electric grid.

In our shared view, going solar benefits yourself, your neighbors, your country and your planet.

1. ROOFTOP SOLAR PROMOTES PERSONAL FINANCIAL SECURITY. Once a rooftop system has paid for itself (typically within 4-13 years), endless electricity produced by the sun is free, although your electric utility will charge fees to connect you to their power lines. A solar installation is practical insurance against future energy price shocks.

2. SOLAR SUPPORTS MANY CLEAN AMERICAN JOBS THAT CANNOT BE OUTSOURCED. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that the solar industry employed more people in 2016 than coal, oil and natural gas combined.

3. POWERING HOMES WITH SOLAR IS A PATRIOTIC DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. Why should we spend all our dollars importing fossil fuels over vast distances when we can create some of our own energy close to home (literally).

4. WE BOTH AGREE THAT HUMAN ACTIVITIES HAVE CHANGED OUR ATMOSPHERE, AND THAT THE CONSEQUENCES OF GLOBAL WARMING ARE REAL AND URGENT. Your personal decision to use solar power will benefit the planet, and moving toward a solar infrastructure will be less polluting to manufacture and use than building out additional fossil fuel infrastructure.

If residential solar is such a great idea, why is the Sunshine State lagging so far behind? After all, Florida has the third highest rooftop potential in the nation, but is only 14th in installed capacity, and earns an "F" on solar policy from the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group.

It is no surprise that electric utilities create barriers to protect their traditional turf from disruptive market forces, including solar. According to a 2016 Environment America report, the fossil fuel industry funds multi-state lobbying campaigns designed to convince regulators that "hard-working ratepayers should not have to subsidize solar elites who benefit from the electric grid, but don't pay their fair share."

In fact, "solar elites" already pay more than their fair share. In whatever states costs and benefits have been tallied, it invariably shows that people who invest in rooftop solar systems actually create a net benefit — not a drain — for their non-solar neighbors. One reason is that solar users supply relatively inexpensive excess power to the grid on the hottest days. Without them, electric utilities would otherwise have to build additional capacity or buy expensive peak power to meet the demand.

Because Florida consumes a vast amount of daytime power for air conditioning, solar can make a valuable contribution. Beyond economics, Floridians could all benefit from less pollution, fewer resulting illnesses and improved security that comes from not placing all our energy eggs in a few centralized baskets.

Florida voters like solar. A 2016 ballot proposal granting property tax relief to commercial solar system owners gained 70 percent approval with strong bipartisan support. And widespread grassroots support even overcame the notorious Amendment 1 last November — a cynical ballot proposal that would have cemented unfavorable solar policy into the Florida Constitution. This happened in spite of a $26 million disinformation campaign primarily funded by the major Florida electric utilities.

What will it take for the Sunshine State to live up to its name? Embarrassment from neighboring Georgia, which promotes enlightened solar policy? Examples like industrialized Germany, which achieved almost 100 percent renewable energy during several days last year?

Our suggestion: Find common ground with your neighbors and power your home with rooftop solar. Both are deeply satisfying acts. In our era of polarized hostility, power from the sun is a freely bestowed gift from the heavens. Red or Blue, we can agree on that.

C. Rudy Engholm is the retired CEO of LightHawk, a nonprofit organization of environmentally oriented pilots. Jerry Brown is the retired chief of the Lake Wales Fire Department. They are neighbors in Lake Wales, and they wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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