The best reason to make solar an issue: It will pay off

Solar panels
Solar panels
Published Apr. 14, 2014

Depending on your preferred cliche, solar is either hot right now or enjoying its moment in the sun.

It became a big part of the race for governor last week, when Democrat Charlie Crist played to a pro-solar rally in Tallahassee.

The week before, there was the nervy move on the part of state Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, to block us from voting on a tax break for businesses that install solar.

Then there was his even nervier remark, that he was tired of propping up the solar industry. This allowed people to point out that Tallahassee is all for propping up industries as long as they prop up political campaigns — none more so than the utilities that donated $18 million from 2004 to 2012 to state and legislative races.

The recent report that documented these donations, funded by a solar industry group, is one more reason people are talking about solar.

But I'd like to think there's a bigger, even better reason.

Solar is starting to make economic sense.

"I'm telling you, in four years nobody in their right mind uses natural gas or coal because it's way too expensive," said Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center.

Fenton talks like a salesman, but he's not. The center, at the University of Central Florida, was created way back in 1975, when the Florida Legislature was interested in good science on this subject.

Imagine that.

Anyway, the price of the average solar panel has fallen by 60 percent since 2011, according to the Solar Industry Association.

That helps make it possible for homeowners to install 4 kilowatts of generating power — enough for one highly efficient home — for less than $20,000, Fenton said.

Subtract the 30 percent federal income tax credit on such installations, and the price drops to below $14,000.

Stretch that out over the 30-year life of the panels (though they can last longer, with only slightly reduced efficiency), then add in maintenance costs, and it comes to 12 cents per kilowatt hour — or almost precisely the average amount charged by utilities in Florida.

The price of both solar panels and installation "will do nothing but go down," Fenton said, while the price of natural gas, which generates most of the power in Florida, will probably go up.

The utilities have said so themselves in forecasts to the Public Service Commission.

A skeptic might ask why, if solar is so cheap, you don't see panels going up all over.

Well, you're starting to.

The United States added a total of more than 2,000 megawatts of solar-generating capacity in the fourth quarter of last year, about 15 times the amount installed in the first quarter of 2010.

Much of this is happening in other states, which tend to offer more of the kind of breaks that Workman killed — and that provide the economic incentive to build the industry to the point where tax breaks are no longer needed.

Yes, solar still faces its eternal problem — storage — and at some point utilities might not want to buy the surge in daytime power from home panels, which is absolutely necessary to make solar economically feasible.

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But Fenton's got ideas about that, too — utilities reusing the batteries from electric cars to build vast storage facilities, for example.

Yes, my friend, talk to Fenton, and the future of solar really does sound sunny.