Editorial: New hope for solar in Florida

For years, Tallahassee leaders have made all sorts of excuses for not encouraging solar power.
For years, Tallahassee leaders have made all sorts of excuses for not encouraging solar power.
Published Aug. 30, 2013

Sometimes good ideas survive even when shortsighted leaders ignore them. News that a small cadre of solar power firms is figuring out ways to gain a foothold in Florida's energy market despite the political hostility is good for consumers, the environment and the state's future. It also should provide additional evidence for more thoughtful lawmakers to persuade Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders to focus on the future of renewable energy.

For years, Tallahassee leaders have said they see no reason to encourage solar here and made up all sorts of excuses, from cloud cover to lower-than-average energy rates. They ignored the long-term environmental benefits of a renewable energy source that doesn't cause pollution and refused to consider how the economics could change with regulatory encouragement. The result: Despite being one of the sunniest places in the country — second only to parts of the Southwest and West — Florida now lags behind less sunny states when it comes to solar power collection. New Jersey, which enjoys 33 percent less sun exposure each day, has six times the solar capacity of Florida's mere 150 megawatts. California produces the most, 2,559 megawatts.

Now some solar firms are finding a way around Florida's restrictive energy policy, written in the last century when the technology for energy creation and transmission required enormous infrastructure investments. The law prohibits anyone but state-sanctioned monopolies such as Duke Energy and Tampa Electric from selling power directly to consumers, meaning any solar-power producer has to sell its power to the monopolies at the cheaper wholesale rate. That makes it harder to recoup an investment, much less make a profit.

That law doesn't apply to individual property owners. And as the Tampa Bay Times' Ivan Penn recently reported, that leaves an opening for a new financing model where a solar firm leases solar equipment to individuals to produce power for their homes at a lower cost than paying a monopoly for the same power. Those economics are expected to only improve as innovation drives down solar equipment costs at the same time that traditional power generation technologies grow more costly due to increasing fossil fuel or pollution costs. Solar will not solve all the state's energy needs, but it could go a long way toward the state's energy independence.

Yet in Tallahassee, many state leaders are stuck in the past, claiming the future lies with nuclear — even after Duke Energy's botched repair job in Crystal River and its folly in Levy County that will rob customers of an estimated $3.2 billion — or clean coal. Others, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, are focused on expanding natural gas pipelines, which means once again importing energy. Meanwhile, the sun is rising and setting each day in the Sunshine State and far too little is being done to harness it.