Our region’s solar advocates shed light on Florida’s renewable roadblocks
Philip Stoddard, the mayor of South Miami, has fashioned a tropical hardwood hammock outside his unassuming residence. His back door opens to a lush garden of more than 100 species of trees and plants, along with a grotto and a swimming pond, where Stoddard and his wife paddle around koi, sunfish and loudmouth bass. An active birdfeeder welcomes 140 avian species, Stoddard estimates.
The cherry on top of this greenest house in the neighborhood is the array of solar panels slanting westward on his roof. Stoddard had them installed in 2014. After a federal solar tax credit, which allows customers to deduct 30 percent of their installation costs, the array set him back $11,500, a hefty investment that will pay itself off, he says, in seven years.
In the meantime, the panels have reduced his FPL bill to nine dollars and change—basically just a connection fee. His home and electric car are 100-percent solar-powered.
“Lots of people have gotten solar because they’ve seen it on my house,” he says.
Stoddard is foremost a biologist, and he satisfies the mental image of a man of science—wiry, with prominent frameless glasses. His first job was with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The guy I worked under was the first to study the effect of DDT on songbirds,” he says.
But it’s his activism as a politician that has raised his profile nationally. Stoddard has been lauded everywhere from Politico to Rolling Stone to National Geographic for his environmental work, including combating sea level rise for the White House’s National Ocean Council, in 2015.
Stoddard sees solar as an integral part of a larger crusade to shrink CO2 levels, and he’s done more than his part to promote its use. He helped secure fair countywide pricing on solar installation through an RFP to solar installers. Then he waived permitting fees for solar customers within South Miami. And in 2017, his city commission passed an ordinance requiring all new construction in South Miami to contain solar panels. Stoddard’s is the first city outside California to pass such a law.
“We don’t build a lot of new houses in South Miami, so it’s more symbolic than it is really going to reduce carbon,” Stoddard admits. “My goal was to call attention to the possibilities, and to get builders just doing it. Once you’ve done solar once, it becomes part of your skill set. … The builder makes money, the realtor makes money, and the homeowner makes money.
Everybody makes money, except the utility. It’s a net benefit to the building industry to do it, but they’re governed by inertia. I wanted to help them overcome that inertia—get into the 21st century.”
Stoddard, however, seems to be a solar-forward exception in a state whose investment in renewables has lagged relative to population, and which is routinely beset with potential impediments.
The Solar Power Authority reports that 157,000 homes have switched to solar in Florida. According to the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, more than $2 million has been invested in solar energy statewide, resulting in 8,589 jobs.
Yet solar makes up less than 0.5 percent of Florida’s total energy capacity, placing us 10th in the national rankings. Compare that to California, where 49.5 percent of the electric grid is powered by renewables, and where 4.7 million homes are solar-powered. Even smaller states like North Carolina, New Jersey, Utah and Georgia surpass Florida. Aren’t we supposed to be the Sunshine State?
What’s the hold up?
The amount of energy the sun provides is mind-boggling. According to Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown, the sunlight striking the Earth’s surface in just one hour delivers enough energy to power the world economy for one year. The development of photovoltaic (PV) energy, which converts sunlight into electricity, dates to 1954, when Bell Labs’ tiny panel of solar cells powered a Ferris wheel. At the time, panels had a production cost of $1,900 per watt.
As technology increased, so did the proliferation of panels, initially on an industrial scale, with the first massive solar PV farms sprouting in the 1980s. Now they cost about 50 cents per watt.
Amir Abtahi, an engineering professor at FAU, remembers his discovery of solar, at MIT in 1972, when his adviser asked him to monitor the university’s cutting-edge rooftop solar: “I went on the roof, and in the middle of minus-30 degrees, this thing was warm. I said, darn, this stuff works!”
Abtahi has installed panels for a living, and he teaches a popular course on solar at FAU. He has witnessed both the escalation and stagnation of solar in Florida. The reasons for the latter are complicated, beginning with solar’s initial growing pains. “The early solar scared people, because the [advocates] were these hippie-looking guys, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with society,” he says. “And then they sold these junky solar lights that worked for a week. Now they work, because the LED lights use so little energy. But if you were to go into Home Depot 10 years ago, you’d see a line of people returning solar lights that didn’t work.”
He also believes that battery power needs improvement, and that our thunderous summer weather is not ideal for solar. But topping the list of culprits is, as he frames it, political will.
“There are rebates in Massachusetts and Virginia and even in New Jersey,” he says. “We had rebates up to 2010, and then the money ran out. Florida used to give us $4 a watt to install solar. Businesses that would install 25 kilowatts of solar would get $100,000 back. Unfortunately that money ran out really fast. Once the money ran out, FPL had a lottery system, which was very hard to get. They would have lotteries at 8 in the morning, and everybody learned how to do it. I tried a couple of times, and it was like buying tickets for Elton John. After a second, there was nothing available.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” he adds. “We have twice as much solar irradiation available as Massachusetts or Germany. Yes, our semi-tropical weather in the summer is not the best, because when we really need the air conditioning loads, there are the thunderstorms. But when thunderstorms come, that’s when the air conditioning peak goes down. You could justify anything either way. I think we don’t have enough solar in Florida because of politics.”
In the 2016 election, politics nearly cratered Florida’s already beleaguered solar industry. Amendment 1, which failed to pass with a required 60-percent majority, was roundly criticized by local media outlets and solar advocates alike. The amendment would have done away with net metering, which allows solar customers to sell back excess solar energy generation to their utility for credits. “The devil was in the details,” Stoddard says. “It said noncustomers should not be subsidizing solar. It meant no solar incentives, period. It meant no net metering, [which is] what makes solar economically competitive at this point.”
Florida’s four largest power companies, including FPL, contributed more than $24 million in support of the amendment. “Florida’s utilities are granted a monopoly by the state, and they’ve used that monopoly to, among other things, thwart rooftop solar production,” Stoddard says. (FPL did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its relationship with solar.)
On an industrial scale, FPL’s parent company, Nextera, is the world’s largest owner of solar and wind power. In March, four new solar farms opened in Florida; the closest to us is the Loggerhead Solar Energy Center, in St. Lucie County. Four more solar plants are expected to begin powering customers by mid-2019, including the first in Miami-Dade County.
Stoddard is not impressed. “Look at their total generation portfolio. Doubling a very small number still gives you a very small number.” Prior to the new solar farms, FPL’s solar generation was 0.6 percent of its portfolio, according to its own data. Unlike other states, Florida has no renewable portfolio standard mandating that a percentage of a utility’s power come from renewables.
“Of course, every time they do this, they take out ads in the newspapers and public radio and talk about what great stewards they are of the environment,” Stoddard adds. “If you look at some of the solar installations they’ve done, they’ve taken what had been productive agricultural fields and turned them into silicon fields. Then they want to claim they’ve created a nature preserve. What, underneath a bunch of solar panels? What nature’s going to be living there? Soil microbes? The place where solar belongs is on top of buildings.”
But some things are happening
Justin Hoysradt, CEO of West Palm Beach’s Vinyasun, which installs solar panels throughout the county, has a sunnier perspective on the state’s third-largest electric utility. FPL has a “pretty good track record,” he says. “We’re very supportive of utility scale development, especially if it’s at virtually no cost to the ratepayer. We’d always like to see more of it.”
And rooftop solar? “Using their words, they’ll say they are supportive of customer-owned solar,” Hoysradt says. “But they are a regulated utility. … And when their customers make investments in power generation, that does take away potential investment from their shareholders.”
Vinyasun is one of 27 Platinum Contractors in the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association (FSEIA), a trade organization which, among other things, educates legislators on the benefits of solar. “Solar polls with supermajorities in both parties,” he says. “More than 70 percent of policymakers in Tallahassee are supportive of solar energy. It is one of the most democratic, conservative things that people can do in the state of Florida and anywhere. It’s about making and generating your own power, on your own property, without the help of a big utility or government. Those are really strong messages, and it is up to us to show our state leaders how those messages play.”
Hoysradt points to the more positive developments in Florida solar energy law, of which the FSEIA has been influential. Though overshadowed by the contentious Amendment 1, 2016’s Amendment 4, which eliminated a property tax on commercially owned solar systems, was approved by more than 73 percent of the electorate. Florida, like 42 other states, still has net metering. And state lawmakers passed the Florida Solar Rights Act, a statute that provides homeowners the right to install panels, regardless of HOA or community association bylaws.
“It is one of the most important statutes we have in the state of Florida,” Hoysradt says. “California’s solar rights laws were modeled after Florida’s. It’s a really strong rule, to the point where it’s been tested in court.”
Moreover, Vinyasun’s own numbers reflect the continued upswing in rooftop solar interest. “We’ve doubled in revenue every year for the past four years, and we’ll probably triple this year,” Hoysradt says.
He concedes that transforming Florida into the California of the east coast in terms of its total solar portfolio is a daunting task, and achieving it has everything to do with framing the advocacy in ways that are friendly to the state’s Republican lawmakers.
“It is very challenging for an environmentally leaning group to persuade the Republican legislature in Florida to open up markets for solar energy when championing a message for climate change,” he says. “Change that message to job creation—in an industry that’s growing jobs multiple times faster than the economy—then those messages are heard. Which is fine—we’re all about creating more jobs in solar energy.”
For Stoddard, however, our carbon footprint remains the problem most worth solving, and the sun one of its viable, underused solutions. The International Renewable Energy Agency already credits up to 330 million tons of annual carbon dioxide savings to solar photovoltaics, even at less than 2 percent of the global electricity mix. Solar generation is expected to climb from 7 percent of all U.S. renewable generation, circa 2015, to 36 percent in 2050. Florida would be wise to embrace the trend.
Stoddard says switching 100-percent off of fossil fuels “could happen in a decade if we decided it was a national emergency. If the Martians came down to Earth, and they set up a death star up there in orbit, and they sent down a hose and began pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, basically to cook the earth and destroy us, we would mobilize all of our financial resources to fight them. Instead, we’re doing it to ourselves, and saying we can’t afford to deal with this. In reality, we can’t afford not to deal with it.”
WANT TO GO SOLAR?
Although solar panels are inexpensive, the labor cost of installing them may produce some sticker shock. The average installation cost for rooftop solar is $25,000 to $35,000, but the federal tax credit will alleviate some of it. If you call Vinyasun with an inquiry, the company’s first step is a discussion about tax incentives, financing and property ownership. Then they’ll take an aerial view of your home to ensure there are no significant obstructions, such as large trees, that would shade the roofline.
Next, Vinyasun will design a 3D map of the rooftop to organize the location of the panels for maximum efficiency. The actual installation can take 30 to 90 days, depending on the municipality.
One way to ensure competitive pricing on solar panels is to join a solar co-op, an idea championed by Philip Stoddard. As few as 30 households with sunny roofs can join an area co-op, such as the Florida branch of Solar United Neighbors. The organization then puts out an RFP to vetted installers, which present a competitive bid for the countywide co-cop. “We’re like a liaison,” says Jody Finver, Miami-Dade County coordinator for Solar United Neighbors. “We put a mechanism in place … and help to fight for people’s solar rights across the country.” Potentially better pricing requires patience, however; it can take four to eight months to go solar through a co-op. Those interested in joining can visit solarunitedneighbors.org/florida.