Solar Heats Up In Central Florida

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(click on the photo to read the story on the Sentinel’s website.)

Central Florida’s solar industry growing hotter

MaureenMcHale is marketing and public-relations manager and Edgardo Rodriguezis executive vice president with Advanced Solar Photonics in Lake Mary,which plans to ramp up production later this month. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ,ORLANDO SENTINEL / June 19, 2009)

In the midst of a dreary economy, the people behind a new company in Lake Mary say things are looking quite sunny.

AdvancedSolar Photonics plans to start manufacturing solar panels later thismonth. While Orange County is courting a solar manufacturer from Ohio,the Lake Mary upstart is among a number of solar companies that alreadymake Central Florida home.

And they say that, despite the economy, business is great.

AdvancedSolar Photonics expects to hire 1,500 people within the next two years.UMA Solar, an Altamonte Springs company that sells a variety of solargoods, plans to start manufacturing solar water heaters in SeminoleCounty this summer. Winter Haven-based QuickBeam, which has beendesigning and installing solar-electric systems for a year and a half,just opened a second location in Orlando.

"We’ve seen explosivegrowth in the solar business locally," said Richard Smith, president ofLongwood’s Superior Solar Systems, which worked on the 1-megawatt solarelectric system recently installed on the roof of the Orange CountyConvention Center.

Across the state, more people are puttingsolar panels on homes, on commercial buildings or in sunny, remoteareas to capture solar energy and to use it for heating water orproducing power. A household solar-electric system can be as simple asa panel that powers an outdoor light or as complex as a series of roofpanels that provide electricity to an entire home.

Those in thesolar industry say the combined momentum of government incentives, thegreen movement and the search for cheaper energy is creating thegrowing demand. Membership in the Longwood-based Florida Solar EnergyIndustries Association has doubled within the past 18 months to about130 members.

"It’s a hot topic — sorry for the pun," said SherriShields, assistant director for communications at the Florida SolarEnergy Center in Cocoa, a research institute of the University ofCentral Florida. "With the price of oil fluctuating and energyindependence, I think people are finally starting to pay attention tosolar."

The center’s solar-technology training courses arebooked through October, and there’s a waiting list for thecertifications the center provides for solar equipment used in Florida.

Solarcompanies in Central Florida generally fall into two categories: thosethat started with a round of government incentives in the late 1970s,and those that started less than five years ago amid fresh demand.

Theolder companies say they survived on pool-heating business between theoriginal incentives, which ended in the 1980s, and the recentresurgence. Now, pool business has declined along with the constructionindustry, while solar water heaters and solar electric systems, whichcan help homeowners save on power bills, are doing well.

In2006, the state started offering rebates of as much as $100,000 forcompanies and $20,000 for residences that installed solar systems.Money budgeted for the rebates has been spent, but a round of federalstimulus dollars is expected to fill the gap. The program sunsets inJuly 2010.

"I remain cautiously optimistic that we can get itextended," said Bruce Kershner, executive director of the Florida SolarEnergy Industries Association.

Since January, Florida propertyowners have also been able to claim a property-tax exemption for solarinstallations. And at the federal level, the 30 percentresidential-solar tax credit used to be capped at $2,000, but last yearlawmakers eliminated the limit. Federal stimulus packages have alsoemphasized green building techniques.

But along with the growthin solar technology have come unqualified technicians. Contractorscomplain that they often have to fix others’ shoddy work.

"You need to make sure that these are licensed people that you are dealing with," Smith said.

Rachael Jackson can be reached at rjackson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-540-4358

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