Alachua County has been selected as one of the six participant counties for a $1.575 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Go SOLAR Florida initiative.
In its second phase, the two-and-a-half year grant will make obtaining solar panel installation permits easier for residents and small commercial businesses.
Holly Banner, a planner for the Alachua County Growth Management Department, said the initiative will focus on building a user-friendly permitting system on the county website using nearly $290,000 of the grant.
“The idea is people will be able to go onto our website and apply for a permit for a rooftop solar installation instead of faxing it in,” Banner said. “This well help to lower some of the soft costs that we see preventing people from installing the panels.”
Banner said the soft costs — referring mostly to the permitting costs — have remained high, although the actual panel costs have fallen steadily in the last few years. She said she sees the Go SOLAR program as an opportunity for making permitting faster, easier and less expensive by streamlining the online process.
She said the program made sense for Alachua because the county has a large focus on energy efficiency with about 15,500 kilowatts of installed photovoltaic capacity. Gainesville Regional Utilities currently serves 387 solar projects, both residential and commercial, according to an email from Rachel Meek, GRU’s business efficiency program coordinator.
Alachua County joins Miami-Dade, Orange, Broward, Monroe, and St. Lucie counties in the Go SOLAR initiative, taking notes from Broward County’s successes in the grant’s first phase last year, she said.
Banner said the six counties will share resources and collaborate on a statewide branding and marketing plan for solar installation outreach to the public.
“The goal of this phase is to expand phase one’s online permitting system out regionally,” she said. “We’ll probably all build it a bit differently to fit into our existing system, but ideally the hope would be that one day this will be a statewide process.”
Kay Sommers, natural resource specialist for pollution prevention in Broward County, said her team built one universal website which 14 partner cities in her county implemented during the first phase of the grant.
“Before the grant, all those 14 cities had different processes that took different amounts of time, had different inspections and different fees,” she said. “But when everyone’s using the same system, the process goes along a lot smoother.”
Sommers said she doesn’t believe Florida’s government has done enough to push solar power, but that she views programs like Go SOLAR as a step in the right direction.
“Our lawmakers haven’t intervened or given us financial incentives for it, so that’s why we’re looking to reduce these soft costs ourselves and get people to install solar that way,” she said. “Maybe 15 years ago it was too expensive, but now the prices are becoming a lot more reasonable, and governments must realize their role in helping make the whole process easier. Although we’re the Sunshine State, we’re behind the rest of the country.”
She said she sees well-paying, skilled solar energy jobs as the future of Florida’s economy and environment. Not only will solar energy help with the electric bill, she said, but it will also help with reducing greenhouse gases.
Colleen Kettles, program director at Florida Solar Energy Center, said she believes that expediting the permitting process will draw an increase in panel installations.
She said her organization will educate participating community associations on the Florida Solar Rights Act, which protects homeowners’ abilities to install solar energy systems. It’s illegal for homeowners associations to restrict solar panel installation, she said, although many associations aren’t aware of their rights.
Kettles hopes Florida homeowners will take advantage of the state’s more than 300 certified solar power installation companies while prices remain low and permitting costs decline through the program.