July 22, 2008

Solar Power in the Sunshine State

By Mary Campbell, Extension Director, Urban Sustainability Agent

solar roof panelsFlorida is called the “Sunshine State”. The sun bathes us with over 200 sunny days per year in the Tampa Bay area. Many people say they have heard that solar energy applications only work well in the clear skies of the desert southwest and won’t be as effective in Florida’s weather conditions. While it is true that the desert southwest has the largest solar resource in the continental U.S., this does not mean that Florida can’t provide substantial solar energy. Florida receives 85% of the maximum solar resource available in the U.S., making it ideal for using solar energy. The power of the sun is considerable - each hour, enough sunlight reaches the Earth to meet the world’s energy needs for a year.

How much of that sunshine are we using to power our homes and businesses in Florida? Not much it turns out. Like most states in the South, Florida is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for energy; with 80% of its electrical generating capacity based on non-renewable sources. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Florida gets 37% of its power from coal, 21% from natural gas, and 22% from petroleum. Clean, renewable sources (wind, geothermal, biomass, and solar) represent only about 3% of Florida's power generating capacity, and the rest (18%) comes from nuclear power plants. With the concerns about carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and our dependence on foreign oil, the push for renewable energy sources has gained momentum.

Why has it taken so long to get renewable sources of energy like solar power into our everyday world? Photovoltaic (PV) systems, which convert sunlight directly to electricity, consume no fuel, use no water, and produce no waste. One of the big issues with solar power has been that it costs more than electricity generated by conventional means. Conventionally generated electricity ranges between 5 and 18 cents per kilowatt hour (the amount of money to get a kilowatt of power for an hour) but in most places it's below 10 cents, according to the Energy Information Agency. Solar energy costs around 15 to 17 cents a kilowatt hour. To install solar panels to power an average home with electricity could cost over $20,000. As the cost of conventional power resources increases and the technology improves for photovoltaic (PV) panels, solar energy will become more and more cost effective.

There are substantial federal income tax credits (30% of the cost of a solar hot water system) and State of Florida rebates ($500 for a system) for the installation of solar systems in Florida. In addition, one Florida utility, Progress Energy Florida (PEF), recently implemented a new program that offers additional utility incentives of $450 for the installation of solar water heating systems. For PV systems, there is a federal income tax credit of up to $2,000 plus a State of Florida rebate of up to $20,000 for home applications and up to $100,000 for commercial applications.

Additional information on these solar energy tax credits, state rebate and utility incentive programs can be found by clicking on the following links:
Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) is one of the leaders in the nation in renewable energy resources. FPL has received approval from the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) to begin construction on three solar energy centers that will make Florida the second largest supplier of utility-generated solar power in the nation. Florida’s SunSmart Schools Program, is installing 29 solar electric systems in schools throughout the state. The program combines state funding with private partnerships to provide clean energy and science education. Unlike fossil fuels, the energy created by the solar unit emits no noise or pollution. The electric power generated by the system will be used to power the school’s classrooms, with excess energy returned to the local power grid. The system will also provide an onsite classroom for students to learn more about solar power and the benefits of energy conservation.

This is an exciting time for solar energy. PV systems are being installed in unprecedented numbers in the United States and worldwide. The first new U.S. concentrating solar power plant in nearly 15 years was completed in 2005, and more plants are planned for the coming years. Solar energy is on the verge of becoming a viable part of our nation’s energy supply, but challenges must still be overcome before it is competitive with conventional energy sources.

solar resource map

This image comes from a study from the Florida Solar Energy Center. The map clearly shows that the desert southwest has the largest solar resource in the continental U.S., but Florida is not very far behind with 85% of the maximum PV resource of any location in the country, making Florida a very cost-effective location for using solar energy. You can view the complete study at:

Florida Solar Energy Center

Florida Dept of Environmental Protection
Department of Energy

Florida’s Energy Act

Solar Energy Incentives Program

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