Florida legislators addicted to campaign contributions by the electric utilities are parroting the industry line that solar power is too expensive and unreliable to count on as a significant energy source. Yet the business community is saving money and reducing carbon emissions by making major investments in solar despite the lack of direction or support from the state. Once again the private sector is ahead of state government, and Florida's next governor should provide stronger leadership with a vigorous renewable energy policy that does more than protect the utilities.
Pinellas County's Great Bay Distributors has announced it will build a 1.5-megawatt solar array at its massive new facility off Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg, which will be the largest private solar system in the state. The $2.6 million system will pay for itself in six years, thanks to help from federal tax credits, and it will cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 44,000 tons over its 30-year life cycle. Great Bay, the largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products in Florida, also expects to reduce its electric bill by as much as 40 percent. No wonder the big utilities feel threatened.
Great Bay is going big on an idea that is catching on across the state. Falling prices on solar panels and improvements to technology have made solar a more affordable option. Pinellas Park manufacturer Polypack installed solar last year (about one-fifth the size of Great Bay's) that cut its electricity bill from $4,800 to $212 in March. The Bay Pines VA Healthcare System facility in Pinellas is saving $189,000 a year in electric costs with a solar system it installed in 2012. And as the Tampa Bay Times' Ivan Penn reports in an article published today, falling prices for solar and upgrades in battery storage and other key components could change the economics even more dramatically in the near future.
This all is happening, of course, with no leadership from Tallahassee. Florida created a solar energy rebate program in 2006, but it killed the incentives when they became too popular. This year, lawmakers weakened the state's focus on solar — in the same bill where they called for "identifying barriers to greater use of renewable energy." This double-speak is one reason why Florida, which renewable energy advocates say has the third-largest potential for rooftop solar generation in the nation, ranks 18th among states in solar installation. More than two dozen states have stronger energy-efficiency programs than Florida. Business leaders working to develop solar in the state complained to a Senate committee during the legislative session that the market is so suppressed they are leaving for other states.
The barriers to solar are clear: Florida's political leaders are more worried about protecting the utilities' monopoly control over power generation than they are about encouraging renewable energy. State law, for example, allows only utilities to sell power directly to consumers. That means the owner of a mall could not install solar on the roof and sell that power to the tenants. Any excess power can be sold to the power company — but only at the wholesale price, and only the power company can resell that energy to a third party.
The next governor should seize the opportunity that solar presents to create jobs, reduce prices for consumers and businesses, cut carbon pollution and diversify and stabilize the state's energy mix. The federal tax credit, which expires in 2016, is a helpful tool the state can piggyback on to craft broader incentives to meet the solar market. State leaders are clearly behind the business community in recognizing the practical future for solar and the role the Sunshine State can and should play in capitalizing on a new industrial market and a more sustainable way of life. This is a pocketbook concern on both ends, involving job creation and the cost of living, and it needs to be a defining issue in this year's governor's race.