Solar energy is beginning to live up to its potential in the Sunshine State.
In 2014, Florida ranked third in the country for solar energy potential but ranked thirteenth for solar capacity installed, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association website.
“Mass adoption is happening in other states due to programs and incentives in place that make it very simple to go solar,” said Michael Collins, a market analyst for Power Production Management, a solar installation company based in Gainesville.
In Florida, Collins explained, residents and businesses face multiple roadblocks in adopting solar energy.
The Florida Public Service Commission recently voted against renewing the state’s solar rebate program, which incentivized solar energy purchases up to a $20,000 rebate per installation.
A lack of public interest did not appear to be the problem — the last round of rebates, which opened Jan. 14, sold out three minutes after the application became available online.
“I’ve seen a lot of increased interest, mainly because the prices (of solar) have gone down,” said Dr. Yogi Goswami, co-director of the Clean Energy Research Center at the University of South Florida.
Large utility systems, such as Gainesville Regional Utilities, are connected to more than 450 solar customers, according to GRU spokesman Patrick Donges.
Adoption of solar energy in Marion County has been slow but steady, said David Anderson, regulatory manager for Ocala Utility Services.
“We have 25 to 30…customers that have systems,” he said. “Over the past five or six years, we’ve been adding a couple systems (every year).”
The largest solar-powered system in Marion County was recently completed at a former water meter factory near Interstate 75. The installation will produce 500 kW of solar energy, with another 250 kW scheduled to be added.
The amount of energy currently produced by the system is enough to fully power 65 Florida homes, maintaining the state’s average energy consumption, according to average use and production data provided by the Center for Sustainable Energy.
The factory building, which has been converted into office space, will save the equivalent of the cost of the solar installation on its electricity bills in about eight years, said Barry Jacobson, president of Solar Impact, the company that built the installation.
“With the way the prices of panels are now, I would say the payback period (for solar installations) would be anywhere from five years to seven (or) eight years,” Goswami said. “For others, if there are more incentives available, it could be less.”
The savings created by installing solar are simple, Jacobson said.
“During the night, they’re buying electricity from the city,” he said. “During the day, the system starts to produce more power than it needs, so it rolls the meter backwards.”
The building’s first tenant will be the county’s office of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
“We specifically seek out facilities with reduced carbon footprints,” said David Ocasio, the department’s regional public information officer. “So, along with the cost-effectiveness and the actual ‘green-age’ of the building, it was the best fit for us.”
While the DCF budget has been a controversial topic in the past, Ocasio wrote in an email that the building was chosen after the department led a competitive solicitation to procure a space and the building’s owners were selected as the lowest bidder.
“We’re benefitting from (the owners’) cost saving, but the actual benefit is that we’re saving the earth,” he said.
Common driving forces for solar customers who are also interested in lowering their electricity bills are the environment and helping to combat climate change, according to Goswami.
In 2013, the Union of Concerned Scientists said the average solar installation of 5 kW — enough to provide over 50 percent of the average Florida home’s electricity usage — would cost about $25,000 without federal or state funding.
The average residential electricity bill in Florida was almost $1,500 in 2012, according to the EIA. Collins estimates that once a system is installed, his residential customers will eliminate on average 50 to 75 percent of their electricity bills.
The exact amount of savings depends on the size of the house and how large a user’s electricity load is, Goswami explained.
Consumers are further capitalizing on savings through the federal government’s incentive program, Goswami added, which allows 30 percent of each new capital investment in solar to return to the user through a tax credit.
Collins said he only sees consumer demand increasing, regardless of future incentives.
“I think market forces are going to keep pushing it forward,” he said. “I don’t see interest ever really going down ever again.”