Bright Days Ahead for Florida Solar

Florida, known as “the Sunshine state,” sees over 200 sunny days a year. This makes it a prime candidate for solar power. However, in the past, government and utility companies have failed to effectively capitalize on its potential. But recent developments in Florida have shown a high degree of activity in the solar energy market. The creation of Babcock Ranch, Florida’s first “green town,” Duke Energy’s partnership with Florida A&M University and Florida Power & Light’s announcement to build the “world’s biggest renewable battery” are some examples. Additionally, lawmakers have shown sport, with the Florida Public Service commission approving cost recovery for Duke Energy after it developed two solar fields. The presence of large-scale solar projects and the demonstrated support from lawmakers signify a bright future for solar power in the Sunshine State.

 

Florida Power and Light (FP&L) is Florida’s largest power utility company, serving approximately five million consumers and relying primarily on natural gas. However, their recent announcement marks an attempt to shift towards more renewable energy sources. In 2019, FP&L announced its goal to create the world’s largest solar-powered battery at its Manatee County facility, with the intent to improve its long-term solar power storage capacity. Power storage issues stem from the variability of solar power, since solar power is highly weather-dependent. The battery will allow for long term storage of extra power on sunnier days to smooth provision over days with less sun exposure. The battery is set to have the storage capacity to power 32,000 homes for 24 hours—about one sixth of all the homes in Manatee County and equivalent to “100 million iPhone batteries.”

 

The project is significant as FP&L is Florida’s largest power provider. A move towards solar energy by such a large utility company in the state is a good sign for potential solar investors and marks a growing interest in developing Florida’s solar capabilities.

 

FP&L is not the only power company in Florida investing in solar energy. Duke Energy is Florida’s second largest power utility company, serving approximately 1.7 million customers and generating most of its power using coal. Duke has announced its intention to build or acquire 700 Megawatts of solar power by 2022. In order to reach this goal, Duke created a partnership with Florida A&M University. Florida A&M will provide between 600 and 800 acres of property to Duke Energy to build a solar facility able to power 23,000 homes.

 

This is a noteworthy development because it is the third large solar project Duke Energy has started in the past two years. In 2018, Duke Energy announced its intention to build a solar facility in Columbia County, Florida which will power about 20,000 homes. Additionally, Duke Energy has just finished building a solar facility in Jasper, Florida that also has the capability to power 20,000 homes. These are three large scale projects that demonstrate increased activity and investment in Florida’s solar space, and, as they near completion, one can expect further construction of similar facilities.

 

The level of solar project activity in Florida is demonstrated not only by the number of projects, but also by the job growth the industry will fuel. According to the Orlando Sentinel, in 2018 nationwide solar employment was down 3.2 percent. Members of the industry blame Trump’s recent trade policy with China, stating that the tariffs imposed on photovoltaic solar units made in China have had a detrimental impact on the industry. In Florida, however, solar energy sector employment saw a 20 percent increase due to the heavy investment from providers.

 

In addition to the creation of typical large-scale solar facilities, Florida has also seen innovative implementation of solar technology. Babcock Ranch is one of these cases. Babcock is a planned community located in northeastern Lee County powered exclusively by solar energy. Babcock donated 440 acres of its land to FP&L to create a solar field to power 15,000 homes. The community opened in 2018 and currently has a population of 400 with a projected population of 50,000 in 20 years. Currently, the energy produced by the town is greater than the energy consumed, a further indicator of the success of solar power.

 

Babcock Ranch may be the first of many solar powered cities in Florida. Even if real estate developers do not wish to reach the same level of solar energy utilization, the success of Babcock’s solar field serves as an indicator to municipal governments and community developers. This success is due in large part to the structure of Babcock’s deal with FP&L. Babcock provides the land, but FP&L owns and operates the solar field. Residents save money because their homes operate with a greater level of energy efficiency, so the average Babcock resident will spend less money on power than residents in comparable towns.

 

Solar power in Florida has seen a history of support from the state and local governments, but only through tax incentives. These policies began with the Florida Renewable Energy Technologies and Efficiencies Act in 2006, which provided Florida residents with rebates and tax deductions to install residential solar panels. This program was closed in 2010 and replaced with another tax incentive program in 2011 but was ended in 2015 after it was deemed not cost efficient.

 

Despite the attempts at support, Florida’s state government has lacked concrete long-term backing for solar power. This is exacerbated by a law that makes power purchasing agreements (PPA) illegal, resulting in a mandate that citizens only buy power from a utility company. In doing so, it essentially prohibits landlords from selling power generated from solar panels on a rented property to tenants. Supporters of the law say that it keeps power rates reasonable. Opponents disagree, stating that the law exists to benefit to utility providers and repealing it would increase competition for utility companies but ultimately benefit consumers.

 

Although it faces an uphill battle, there is currently a bill is making its way to the Florida state senate which would allow PPAs. If passed, communities will be built where tenants can buy power from solar panel installed on homes instead of from utility companies. Many landlords leasing or renting property will install solar panels, allowing them to increase profits and decrease tenants’ utility costs.

 

Although there are rules and regulations that may discourage the use of solar power, Florida lawmakers have recently shown increased support for solar energy. In early April of 2019 the Florida Public Service Commission approved cost recovery for two of Duke Energy’s solar projects. The newfound governmental support for solar projects will encourage investors and other utilities to continue to support Florida’s solar economy and further construction of large solar fields and facilities can be expected in the near future.

 

Despite the government’s wavering support in the past, the future is bright for solar energy in the Sunshine State. The presence of widespread activity in Florida and increased support from the state government will inspire a “sun rush” marked by a spike in solar projects and increased activity in Florida’s solar energy market.