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Here Comes the Sun

Article as it appeared on
April 2nd, 2008
By Alex Pickett | Creative Loafing

It's noon, and a train whistle cuts through the air of Jon Butts' 15-acre property in Plant City. I can barely hear Butts as he explains how his solar panels work, but for the 60-year-old farmer, the train whistle brings up a good point.

Adjacent to his property, along State Road 39, coal moves daily along the train tracks to power plants in Southwest and Central Florida.

"Tons and tons of coal," he repeats and then points to the 16 solar panels on top of his barn. "I have 20 years' worth of power up there, and I can put it in the back of a pickup truck. You can't tell me coal is the most efficient energy source."

In January 2006, Butts became the first Tampa Electric customer to connect a solar power array to the company's grid. Since then, he's expanded to 21 panels that generate half the electricity needed to run his farm. Solar panels heat his water, charge his golf carts and run an extra refrigerator. He even has a solar oven and a solar dehydrator he built himself (great for banana chips, he says). On average, Butts' system, which cost $20,000, produces about 20 kilowatt-hours a day. His solar inverter, a toaster-shaped white box that monitors electricity generated by the array, shows he's stopped about 8 tons of CO2 from going into the atmosphere.

Yet Butts' solar panels, which he installed before the state offered any incentives, are no longer a curiosity. According to industry experts and power company representatives, solar power's popularity is soaring; approximately 300 Floridians have already harnessed Florida's most plentiful resource for their energy needs, much of them within the past two years. And if state and federal programs continue to match the pace of demand and bring down costs for homeowners, that upward trend could continue.

As one industry advocate says, "Solar — it's not just for hippies anymore."

Peter Belmont is another solar trailblazer. When the downtown St. Pete resident had 12 solar panels installed on the roof of his townhome last April, he was the first in the city to secure a permit for a solar array, "which to me shows how far behind we are in this county and state," says Belmont, an environmental lawyer. "The state in general is way behind on other states in incentives and production."

On a recent sunny day, I follow Belmont up a skinny wooden ladder to his tiny roof, partially shaded by a nearby condo.

"You're pulling a little power in almost every daylight situation," he says. "If it's raining out, you produce something, though not a lot."

Even with the shade, his solar array can produce up to 15 kilowatt hours a day, fully powering his home and then some.

For the last few years that meant his power company, Progress Energy, would purchase his excess electricity at a wholesale price — about 40 percent of what he pays for electricity. But a recent decision by the state's Public Service Commission makes Belmont's agreement with Progress Energy a little brighter. Under new "net metering" rules, he'll receive the full retail price of his excess power. Though he can't receive money back, he can receive a credit on his bill.

Belmont spent $22,000 on his solar array, but through federal tax credits and state rebates, he has recouped half the cost.

"I think people have a strange perspective about putting solar power in a home," he says. "People seem to pause over the money. 'Oh I wouldn't spend that much on solar.' These are people who wouldn't question the cost of granite countertops. But which pays you back over time?"

He pauses and looks over Tampa Bay to TECO's power plant at Apollo Beach.

"We can make a significant difference in our energy needs with systems like this," he continues. "I think it's a technology that works today. As far as I'm concerned, it's not a future technology. It's here today, it works today, I think it's feasible today."

Despite mandates from Gov. Charlie Crist for more renewable energy sources, Florida hasn't moved nearly as far as California, or even New Jersey, in promoting solar as a viable energy resource. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 80 percent of Florida's energy consumption comes from the nonrenewable resources of coal, natural gas and petroleum. But if the overwhelming applications for Florida's Solar Energy Systems Rebate Program are any indication, Floridians want out of Big Coal's shadow. In December, halfway through the fiscal year, the state's funding for the solar rebate program ran dry. Approximately 1,100 applications — totaling about $2 million — still await processing, their fate depending on the amount the Legislature funds for the next fiscal year.

Dale Gulden, CEO and president of Solar Direct, a 22-year-old Bradenton company that installs solar systems throughout Southwest Florida, says Florida lawmakers "underestimated" the demand for solar power.

Just as important as state incentives are the federal tax credits for solar panels. Those tax credits are due to expire at the end of the year unless the U.S. Senate and President Bush approve House Bill 5351, which extends the tax credits for another eight years.

"Continuation of the federal income tax credits would be absolutely crucial [to the industry]," Gulden says.

Advocates admit solar is not the end-all for Florida's energy needs; the technology is still too costly for many homeowners. But a greater emphasis is needed, they say. After all, Florida is the "Sunshine State."

"The sun is already there," Butts says, looking over his organic sweet potatoes and tomatoes. "It comes down on us every freakin' day. To me, solar power is a no-brainer."

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