Solar Energy on the Rise as Floridians Push for Clean, Resilient Energy and Consumer Choice
Written by Andrew Sendy
Updated March 12, 2020
6 minutes read
Americans are increasingly willing and able to take advantage of the benefits of installing a solar home energy system offers, including in Florida. Nevertheless, solar energy continues to be a hot, politically divisive topic in many U.S. states. The situation in Florida, “The Sunshine State,” affords an excellent example.
Recent public votes, developments and activity have made it clear that a large majority of Floridians strongly support making solar energy more accessible, affordable and commonplace, whether it be in the form of individual solar rooftops, ground-mounted photovoltaic (PV) systems, community solar co-ops, or utility-scale solar power stations. However, they continue to face staunch opposition – even purposely deceptive public relations campaigns and other practices – on the part of some of the state’s investor-owned utilities.
That doesn’t change the essential fact that Florida is potentially one of the most attractive states in the U.S. to install a solar energy system. According to the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Florida ranks third nationwide when it comes to rooftop solar power potential. Furthermore, leading manufacturers and vendors, such as Tesla, are now offering homeowners, building owners and businesses stationary intelligent lithium-ion battery energy storage systems in the Sunshine State, giving Floridians the option of enhancing the reliability and resiliency of electricity supply and taking a big step along the path to emissions-free energy self-sufficiency.
Adding to solar energy’s prospects in the Sunshine State, independent solar power industry participants, pro-solar advocates, homeowners, and business and property owners are demonstrating that they are increasingly well-organized and intent on protecting their basic rights and leveraging their collective political and bargaining power and influence to help ensure that solar energy plays a key, core role in the future of power and energy in Florida.
The Ripple Effects of Hurricane Irma
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reminded people in Texas, Florida and across the country just how dependent we are on electricity. With solar energy and battery energy storage costs continuing their decline, industry analysts and participants see a prospective tipping point in the making in the residential solar-energy storage market.
Hurricane Irma left some 6.7 million Floridians in the dark. It also galvanized solar energy proponents and utility customers across the Sunshine State. One news report focused on the experiences of a Florida resident and a town, Coral Springs, that took advantage of solar energy-battery storage systems to keep the lights on and electricity flowing in the midst of the hurricane.
Such cases serve as the exception rather than the rule, however; and that’s mainly down to the political power and influence investor-owned utilities exert on elected and appointed state government officials. Irma nearly wiped out Florida Power & Light’s grid in southwestern Florida while more than 4.5 million of FPL’s 4.9 million customers lost grid power during the storm. That was despite the utility, Florida’s largest, investing nearly $3 billion over the past decade to modernize and harden its grid infrastructure – costs, as well as a regulatory profit of between 9.6 and 11.6 percent, that its customers will continue to pay for many years to come.
In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, having sufficient, and sufficiently resilient, back-up power capacity is at the forefront of people’s minds in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. That’s likely true for utility customers across the U.S., Sunnova CEO John Berger said in a recent interview. “The question for our companies and industry is how do we meet that demand?” Berger asked. “How far and how fast can the price of battery storage capacity fall?”
A Political Solar Energy Tug of War
The “tug of war” between Florida residents and the state’s investor-owned utilities is evident in state solar energy statistics. According to SEIA, while the Sunshine State ranks third nationwide in rooftop solar power potential, it ranks “all the way down at 12th for cumulative solar capacity installed.”
“Florida’s solar policies lag behind many other states in the nation: it has no renewable portfolio standard and does not allow power purchase agreements, two policies that have driven investments in solar in other states,” SEIA states.
One veteran Florida solar energy professional recently informed Solar Reviews that residential “PV systems were being installed in Orlando for as low as $2.75 per watt.”
All things considered, the outlook for rooftop and residential solar energy isn’t all gloom, however; far from it. State-wide, installing a 5-kilowatt residential solar energy system in Florida cost an average $14,400 as of Sept. 1, 2017 – $10,080 after claiming the 30 percent federal investment tax credit (ITC). With financing – loan or lease – it cost an average $16,300 to have a 5-kW – $11,410 after claiming the 30 percent federal ITC.
In addition, solar installation companies are abundant in the Tampa Bay area. Our solar installer reference guide lists no less than four pages of solar installation companies – a total of 40 – in the 33605 zip code alone. Each of the top 10 garnered our highest 5-star rating.
Furthermore, Floridians in the November 2016 election voted down utility-sponsored Amendment 1 in a public referendum. It was revealed during the run-up to the vote that the state’s four largest investor-owned utilities colluded in a $20 million-plus public relations scheme to deceive voters by mislabeling the referendum and misrepresenting it as being pro-solar. In fact, it would have seen a prohibition on any business or individual, except their own companies, buying, or homeowners and business owners selling, excess solar power added to the state constitution. If it had become law, the new constitutional amendment would also have enabled the utilities to raise fees on homes and businesses with solar energy systems.
In August 2016, 73 percent of Florida voters cast their votes in favor of Amendment 4, a ballot referendum that called for extending the property tax exemption on solar energy installations from residences to commercial and industrial businesses. The state legislature passed the resulting bill, SB90, this May and Governor Rick Scott signed the bill into law in June.
In fact, there are 19 other state and local solar energy incentives that those considering having, or those who already have, a solar PV system installed can take advantage of, according to North Carolina State University’s DSIRE (Database of State Renewables and Efficiency), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Solar on the Roof of Every New Home
Florida's investor-owned utilities have announced plans to expand investments in solar energy throughout the Sunshine State in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Florida Power and Light (FPL) installed 1.25 million solar panels in 2017 and plans to add another 2.5 million by early 2018, we point out in an Oct. 20 news report. FPL says it expects its solar power generation capacity will exceed that from coal and oil combined by 2020.
In addition, a growing number of Floridians who live in apartment buildings, co-ops or condominiums, or those who own homes are choosing to participate in the growing number of community solar programs that have been cropping up across the Sunshine State. Organized and led by Florida Solar United Neighborhoods and the League of Women Voters, news emerged that Volusia County would be the 16th group to form a solar co-op in Florida.
Some Florida cities aim to take solar energy a big step further. Marking a first for Florida, the City of South Miami City Council in mid-July enacted a law that requires solar energy systems to be installed on newly constructed homes, as well as homes undergoing extensive renovation.
Officials in St. Petersburg followed suit in August, proposing legislation that would require solar panels be installed on new homes of more than 1,100 square feet. In addition, it would require solar panels be installed on homes that need major roof repairs.
In addition to all this, in August investor-owned Duke Energy, the state’s second largest utility, announced a proposed settlement with consumer, environmental and public interest groups that entails scrapping plans to complete construction of the Levy nuclear power plant without customers or the state having to pay for any more costs incurred. Duke also said it would invest as much as $6 billion in a range of distributed solar, renewable energy and energy storage projects and initiatives.