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Florida lags behind other states on generating solar energy

Published Jun. 14, 2012

Ask state lawmakers why Florida doesn't focus more on solar energy and they'll complain about too many clouds.

So with little political will to aggressively tap the sun, Florida now lags behind other not-as-sunny places such as Massachusetts, Ohio, New York and New Jersey in developing more solar capacity.

New Jersey installed the most new solar in the first quarter of 2012, according to a report released Wednesday by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Florida ranked 14th.

The difference was huge. New Jersey added almost 174 megawatts from January to March. At that rate, the state would add the equivalent of a mid-sized nuclear reactor to its electrical capacity by the end of the year.

Florida added just 2.8 megawatts.

California still led in overall solar generation (1,662 megawatts). Florida ranked a distant 10th with less than 6 percent of California's total, according to the solar industry report.

Why is the Sunshine State falling behind in development of solar electricity? Several reasons.

The primary one, experts say, is a lack of a state requirement or even a goal for increasing the amount of solar electricity. Florida is one of just 14 states — almost all in the southeast United States — without a renewable energy policy standard or goal.

"Fundamentally, it's a policy issue," said Tom Kimbis, a vice president at Solar Energy Industries Association, during a conference call about the report. "If you look at where solar gets installed, it's the states that have the right policies in place."

James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida, put it this way: "Florida itself does not have a vision for its future. That's true on everything in Florida, but particularly in regard to energy."

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and the incoming speaker of the House, said that renewable energy standards require subsidies to corporations to entice them to generate more electricity from sources like solar or wind. He said he believes solar will play "a larger part of energy production in Florida and across the world," but he would rather the falling price of solar dictate whether to invest in it rather than government mandates.

"Subsidies mean people have to pay more," Weatherford said. "It's essentially a tax. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that we don't have a standard."

In 2006, former Gov. Charlie Crist pushed for a policy that would have required 20 percent of the state's energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2020, but that effort died.

State lawmakers scuttled the idea, saying Florida's "intermittent cloud cover," or essentially clouds that come and go, would disrupt solar power generation and make it unreliable. It's a claim lawmakers echo today.

"I heard that for 10 years ... intermittent cloud cover," said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the environmental group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "A good number of states have set targets for renewable energy and that helps to create a market where renewable energy can thrive and Florida policy makers have not done that."

Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Progress Energy, said solar is a part of Florida's energy solution but that it is only "a piece of the puzzle."

"We need to make sure we build and install capacity that meets needs at all times," Leljedal said. "When you look at solar generation, it is by its very nature ... intermittent."

Progress Energy offers rebates and assistance to customers who want to install solar, and the utility pays for installation of solar at schools throughout its Florida service territory.

But the state has only once offered a major incentive for utilities to build large-scale solar. Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, snatched it up to build three solar electric power sites. FPL was allowed to recover the costs by adding 25 cents per 1,000 kilowatt hours of usage to customers' bills each month. (The average residential customer uses about 1,000 to 1,200 kilowatt hours a month.)

FPL is now the largest solar energy producer in the state, though solar accounts for less than 1 percent of its total power generation.

Another factor hindering the growth of solar in Florida: In other states, the cost of solar is the same or cheaper than other sources. In Florida, it's not, at least yet.

Last year, Fenton presented a state-by-state breakdown of the average cost to produce a kilowatt of electricity based on 2009 figures during a forum about solar energy.

With the cost of solar running about 16 cents a kilowatt, Fenton said, it is less than what utility customers in Massachusetts pay for electricity at 17.4 cents and those in New Jersey at 16.6 cents.

"Their existing rates for electricity are more expensive," Fenton said. "They're suffering. They have pain. They're looking for options... and solar's prices are coming down."

In Florida, the cost of solar remains higher than the average cost of retail electricity. Based on Fenton's numbers, Florida's average was 12.3 cents in 2009.

But because the price of solar continues to drop, it will eventually make economic sense, he said.

"If you have a choice between building a natural gas plant or solar, from a utility standpoint, you're going to choose natural gas," Fenton said. But he predicts that "solar will be cheaper than natural gas by 2022."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332.

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