Something's wrong when New Jersey, Georgia and Mississippi have bragging rights on Florida. But that's the sorry state of solar power development, and it's time the Sunshine State lived up to its name.
Georgia's Republican utility regulator hammered home the point this month at an annual meeting in Orlando of industry professionals, highlighting the huge gains Georgia is making and debunking the excuses that others in government and industry have peddled about the prohibitive cost of cleaner energy. Bubba McDonald led the effort in 2010 to create 50 megawatts of solar in Georgia, about one-third of Florida's capacity. By the end of 2016, Georgia's solar capacity will reach 790 megawatts, dwarfing Florida's.
The trick is simple: Use hard targets or incentives to induce the power companies to develop solar as a larger part of the energy mix. Georgia gives state regulators the latitude to require utilities to include various sources of energy for electricity generation. North Carolina has required the use of renewable energy. Dozens of states have targets that push the industry to provide a percentage of their power from renewable sources. Florida lawmakers have opposed giving the state Public Service Commission that same authority; for now, the PSC reviews utility plans for "efficient, cost-effective" generation. That's code for a backward-looking model that encourages the industry to build new plants and to sell as much electricity as possible.
Renewables such as solar and efficiency programs are the cheapest sources of developing new energy capacity. What the industry needs is a push in that direction to spawn the types of research and investment that would make solar and other cleaner sources competitive with traditional forms of energy. Lisa Edgar, a PSC commissioner, said Florida wants more solar but "we haven't figured it out." What the PSC has mastered is a regulatory environment that forces Duke Energy customers to pay $3 billion for the company's failed nuclear ambitions and not get a single kilowatt of nuclear power in return.
Other states have figured out solar, and it starts with political leadership. California, the leading state, has 2,900 megawatts of installed solar; Arizona, about 1,100. The Sunshine State is not even in the top 12. The renewables industry has pleaded for years for Florida to adopt a more forward-looking business model, one that creates a climate for investment while giving energy manufacturers regulatory certainty. In Florida, utility executives have said they can add more solar if consumers are willing to pay more for it. But with federal tax credits available and new technology driving down equipment prices, it's past time that Florida joined the rest of the nation in diversifying its energy market with cleaner and more sustainable sources.