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Wasted Sunshine – an Open Letter to Florida’s Leadership

Road To Solar

As a solar PV installation instructor, I generally try to stay out of politics.  Although I have my own opinions on any number of topics, policy is not my field of expertise.  Rather, installing solar panels (and teaching this important skill) is where I excel.

But with a burgeoning industry like ours, it’s impossible to remain entirely outside of politics.  Decisions made at the top carry major ramifications for the entire industry.  We have an opportunity to make Florida (the Sunshine State) a pioneer in solar PV adoption.  And yet, time and time again, promising starts turn into unfortunate disappointments.

Such birthing pains accompany any relatively new industry.  They’re to be expected.  But whereas technology and consumer demand are typically the primary bottlenecks, in Florida’s case, the obstacles are often political in nature.

This is not an attack on politicians.  It’s unfair to categorize an entire group like this – especially since so many elected officials have thrown their full support behind renewables.  But there are still enough wasted opportunities out there to cause alarm.

Consequently, Florida remains way behind in solar development (again, we’re talking about the “Sunshine” State).  And it’s nearly dead last when it comes to renewable portfolio standards (RPS).

Let’s go through a few of these missed opportunities.  Keep in mind that this list only reflects my own personal views.  But as someone who works closely with solar stakeholders at nearly every stage of the entire supply chain – from manufacturers to end users – I believe that my perspective carries at least some weight.

1.    The Birth and Death of Florida’s RPS

Not long ago, Florida actually did implement a fairly ambitious RPS, modeled closely after California’s (currently one of the most active solar markets in the Americas).  After adopting the RPS under Charlie Crist’s governorship, the state’s leaders expanded the definition of “renewable energy” to include “clean energy.”

On the surface, this seems like a minor fix.  But this small change essentially opened up the doors to nuclear energy – a technology that is neither “clean” nor “renewable.”  It wasn’t long before FPL doubled the size of its Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant on South Dade County’s coral reef.

2.  Stalled Legislation

About 4 years ago, Floridian voters approved an amendment that would have eliminated taxes on renewable energy improvements that raised property values.  The provision was designed to encourage solar adoption without punishing users in the process.  After all, one doesn’t install solar for it’s property value benefits.  One does it to:

  • save money
  • decrease dependence on fossil fuel
  • protect the environment

Increased property value is simply a beneficial byproduct.

4 years later, the legislature has yet to put this amendment into law – for reasons that I simply cannot understand.  The people voted on it.  And quite frankly, the state government could more than compensate by taxing the green economic growth that such an amendment would help create.  More solar purchases, more solar jobs, more construction, more renovation – it’s a win-win.

3.  Failure to Understand the Solar Market

This next item is a bit personal because US Solar Institute (USSI) was sometimes directly (or indirectly) involved.

The Department of Energy awarded $658,000 to Broward County through its SunShot Program – an initiative designed to boost solar adoption throughout the region.

Broward County put together a team to head up the program (dubbed GO Solar).  Unfortunately, these government workers “[had] zero solar construction experience” in the words of the grant organizers.

Fair enough.  You can’t be an expert in everything.  The problem was that the GO Solar team ignored repeated offers for free training from USSI to help supplement their skills and understanding.

I’m a firm believer that one must know before one can do.  In fact, it’s our school’s slogan.

With a project such as this – one that necessarily required both policy experience AND solar expertise – it was a mistake to rely exclusively on internal, untrained staff.  They simply weren’t up to the task of implementing a streamlined, online permitting process in a State with one of the most comprehensive building codes in the world.

Consequently, a lot of early supporters and very valuable talent (i.e. professional engineers, solar installers, etc.) walked away from the program in frustration.  Another missed opportunity.

Education Is a Crucial Ingredient for Fixing a Broken System

Despite these major setbacks, we’re on the right track – generally speaking.

President Obama’s reelection is an important step towards building a greener economy.  And I say this with no political affiliations attached.  He was simply the better option when it comes to renewables.  After all, his opponent openly derided promises to “stop the rise of the oceans” – a comment that should alarm anyone who takes the environment seriously.

I disagree with the President on many different issues; but his commitment to renewable energy training within community colleges is critical for building the understanding, skills, and awareness that were noticeably lacking in the “missed opportunities” outlined above.

At US Solar Institute, we would like to take that awareness even further by educating our leaders about the skills, trades, and technology necessary for growing the industry.  And to that end, we will continue to offer free solar PV installation training to any elected official who asks.

That’s correct – 100% free.

Why would we ever make such an offer?  Simple.  Our elected leaders are responsible for designing Florida’s solar policies.  And like our slogan says, “one must know before one can do….”