Solar-Power Push Heats Up
Today's rising electric utility costs combined with the promise of cheap and reliable power during hurricane season have more and more Floridians looking to the sun for help.
But a dearth of qualified installers, long waits for pricey solar-electric systems and a lack of financial incentives have made the Sunshine State lag way behind when it comes to converting solar rays into electricity.
As state leaders gather today in Tallahassee to discuss Florida's energy future, the message from solar-power proponents will be clear: Florida isn't doing enough to take advantage of its sunny nature.
Other states, such as California, Nevada, Washington and New Jersey, have positioned themselves as leaders by providing incentives and adopting policies that promote renewable-energy sources. And that has put Florida in catch-up mode.
Indeed, a report card on renewable energy by the Union of Concerned Scientists gave Florida a "D" because it lacks a comprehensive approach to promoting renewable-energy technologies such as wind turbines, hydroelectric, solar and others.
Florida, second only to Hawaii in the average number of "sun hours" per day, relies on non-renewable fossil fuels and nuclear power to generate 97 percent of its electricity, according to a January 2004 report by the Florida Solar Energy Center.
That same report, produced for the state Department of Environmental Protection, recommended providing incentives for renewable-energy uses.
But no such incentives have been adopted.
"Florida's state government has done virtually nothing to promote solar energy," said Craig Williams, executive director of the Central Florida Renewable Energy Society.
Williams thinks incentives are needed because solar-electric systems, known as photovoltaic, tend to be expensive. An average home system can cost $40,000.
Solar systems that heat water, known as photothermal, can be bought and installed for about $3,000.
The lack of incentives partially explains why pricier photovoltaic systems are scarce in the Florida marketplace.
All-in-one kits can take a month to be delivered, and the wait for some larger solar panels is as long as nine months.
Another reason is that manufacturers are shipping to where demand is greatest.
California incentives can cover half the cost of photovoltaic systems.
In New Jersey, incentives can cover 60 percent of the costs.
Starting in January, a federal tax credit will knock off 30 percent of the cost of a solar-electric or solar-thermal system up to $2,000.
"California is sucking down all the panels," Williams said. "In the long term, it's a good thing because it will encourage manufacturers to build more plants, but for now we're suffering under a shortage."
And it's not just the product that's in short supply. Finding qualified installers is almost as hard.
Dave and Judy Zarling were so sold on solar power that they took down their $40,000 solar-electric system, swathed it in bubble wrap and carted it from Simi Valley, Calif., to Deltona.
But it then took them six months to find someone who could install it on their Florida home.
Ironically, some of the best cutting-edge research on solar power is happening in Central Florida and has been for 30 years at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa.
The center, operated through the University of Central Florida, was created at the height of the 1970s energy crunch to look at alternative and renewable energy resources.
Center director Jim Fenton, who is on a panel at today's energy summit, said his center staff is constantly looking at ways to show the advantages of solar power.
Based on initial costs and the average life of components, solar hot-water systems already are cheaper in the long run than paying to heat water with electricity that flows into most homes, he said.
The same can't be said for solar electric, Fenton conceded, at least not yet.
But rising fuel prices, population growth and growing energy demands around the globe could force local utilities to raise prices, making solar electric more viable as an alternative, he said.
While major incentive programs are not on the horizon in Florida, low-interest loan programs combined with federal tax credits could make solar hot-water systems quite affordable and help take the sting out of the cost of solar-electric systems, Fenton said.
"I'm hoping we can do this [loan program] in Florida. With the hurricanes this year and last and our reliance on importing fuels, we have to do something."
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News