Solar Disarray: Lawmakers Bungle Green Push

As a blazing sun bore down this week, Southwest Florida got asweltering reminder of true solar power. With the intensity andfrequency of its sunshine, Florida should be a world leader inharnessing this potent form of renewable energy.

Yet, the statehas only a handful of commercial solar arrays, offers a paltry $5million rebate program and serves merely as a conduit for federalstimulus funds targeted to renewable energy projects.

Despitegood goals set by Gov. Charlie Crist, Florida has done too little toincrease the use and generation of solar power or to encouragebusinesses or jobs in developing, supplying or installing the equipment.

Meanwhile,California’s Solar Initiative boasts a $2 billion budget to financeincentives. Arizona and Nevada also offer generous incentives for solarinstallations. Even New Jersey has surpassed Florida by making solarsystems tax-exempt and providing loans and rebates to supportinstallations.

Florida’s Legislature had an opportunity in thisyear’s session to move the state forward in the promotion of renewableenergy. Crist’s call to require electric utilities to generate 20percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 was part of anenergy bill that passed in the Senate.

But the House never took up energy legislation, citing a need to focus on the budget.

Yet,the House found time, in the closing days of the session, to pass abill to allow offshore oil and gas drilling as close as three milesfrom Florida’s Gulf Coast. Fortunately, the Senate refused to considerit.

The action and inaction by the House explain why Florida isfalling behind in the "green economy" – despite the efforts of a cadreof entrepreneurial companies – while other states and nations benefitfrom the industries and jobs generated by the push for renewable energy.

WhileFlorida’s House continues to embrace fossil fuels – and jeopardizingthe coastal environment and tourist economy – nearly 30 states havepassed laws similar to what Crist and the Senate were seeking. Congressis on the verge of setting a national standard for increasing the useof renewable energy. And other countries such as Germany – whichestimates that it now has 250,000 jobs in renewable energy – haveburgeoning industries based to a large degree on the production ofsolar power.

Emblematic of Florida’s solar disarray is the taleof Sarasota County’s Triple J Ranch, reported by Zac Anderson in theJune 7 Herald-Tribune.

The owners of the ranch spent $500,000 toinstall a 300-panel solar system. The array generates enough power inone month to run an average house for a year. The owners figured theycould produce enough power to reduce the ranch’s monthly electric billfrom $5,000 to $1,000.

But Florida law got in the way.

A2008 law regulating "net metering" – the sale of excess, independentlygenerated energy to a power company – expanded the eligible solarsystems from home-based arrays to those at businesses and officebuildings. But the bill failed to account for homes and businesses -like the Triple J Ranch – that have multiple electric meters.

And a 1969 law largely prohibits combining multiple meter readings on one bill.

Unfortunatelyfor the Triple J, all of its solar panels were installed on two,low-energy-consuming horse barns and feed into two meters. The powergenerated cannot be applied to seven other metered sites at the ranch.And the excess energy is being sold to Florida Power & Light notfor the state-established price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour but forjust 6 cents a kilowatt hour. That’s FPL’s "fuel price," less the costof its transmission lines and other infrastructure.

As a result of all that, the Triple J’s $500,000 solar array saves it very little.

Floridashould be in the business of encouraging the use of solar power, not ofpunishing users who fail to grasp the nuance of the state’s arcane laws.

If Florida is to join the vital global gold rush in green energy, the Legislature needs to take some critical steps:

•Establish a renewable energy standard of 20 percent by 2020.

•Thoroughlydebate the concept of "feed-in tariffs," by which utilities purchaseexcess solar power at a premium over conventional rates. The city ofGainesville’s publicly owned utility pays such a premium and hascreated a mini-economic boom in the purchase and installation of solarpanels – which is the purpose of the tariffs. Germany and othercountries have done the same.

•Rewrite the net-metering law and other laws that could discourage investment in solar energy.

Giventhe stakes for Florida in the onset of climate change – the potentialfor rising sea levels, stronger storms and the soaring insurance coststied to those eventualities – this state has more reason than most topursue and promote renewable energy, especially solar power.

Next year’s legislative session is not too soon to start.

And if legislators fail again to let Florida join the green economy, voters need to send them into the electoral sunset in 2010.

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