Florida’s Solar Market: The Sleeping Giant is Awakening

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The year 2016 was a good year for solar power, both nationally and in Florida. The total amount of installed U.S. solar power generating capacity nearly doubled in a single year from an already impressive 7.5 gigawatts of capacity added to the grid in 2015 to over 14.6 gigawatts in 2016.

Florida participated in solar power’s national success by adding 1,700 solar jobs, building utility-scale solar farms, engaging in robust commercial and industrial solar installation activity, achieving favorable outcomes on two constitutional referenda, and positioning itself to make further progress throughout 2017. Florida’s solar market, which had long been a sleeping giant among U.S. solar markets, is now awakening.

The state lives up to its nickname, “The Sunshine State,” in terms of the average annual solar energy that it absorbs. Florida has the highest levels of solar energy east of the Mississippi River and therefore the greatest potential to take advantage of generating electricity from sunlight, which has a fuel charge of $0.00 per photon. It now appears that the state is about to begin to live up to the power-generation potential inherent in its nickname.

Voters Want a Clean Bill

In August 2016, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that empowered the Legislature to exempt solar equipment from non-residential property tax assessments. Accordingly, Senator Jeff Brandes introduced Senate Bill 90 to ensure that the will of the people is promptly and fully implemented in the 2017 General Session.

Last week, the Senate Communications, Energy & Public Utilities Committee unanimously approved the bill. Senator Brandes commented that “Florida should be a leader in solar, and the passage of this bill brings us one step closer to that reality.”

Although most are optimistic that the bill will pass both houses of the Legislature without incident, it remains to be seen whether the bill can successfully run the gauntlet of the General Session and come out untampered with. Potential funny business might include implementing only the real property portion and not the tangible personal property portion of the bill or offering amendments clothed in “consumer protection” language.

Of course, consumer protection is paramount, and Florida’s consumer protection laws apply just as firmly to solar installations as they do to any other building improvement, and this makes adding consumer protection language superfluous at best, particularly to a property tax-exemption measure that applies to commercial property owners, who are generally regarded as fairly sophisticated consumers of construction services. Voters did not buy into the consumer protection message that Amendment 1’s supporters employed to promote that measure, which voters rejected as anti-competitive, and the voters certainly will not be impressed if consumer protection language is employed to in any way minimize or frustrate this bill’s purpose or effectiveness. The bill is off to a good start in the Senate, and eyes are turning to the House to see whether the House will continue down the path of a clean bill that will duly and timely implement the will of the people.

Raising Awareness ahead of the General Session

Meanwhile, solar advocates are gearing up for the General Session. The Florida Solar Industries Association put on a 5k run in Sarasota, Florida, on Saturday, February 4. Dozens of runners and supporters turned out to kick off a new year of moving the Sunshine State’s energy regulation into the Twenty-First Century.

Florida solar employers are preparing to visit Tallahassee in late February to meet with legislators to call their legislators’ attention to this state’s solar job potential and the benefit to consumers of addressing Florida’s regulatory barriers, which were created long ago and are seen as the largest financial obstacle to allowing solar to flourish in the state.

Tim Hughes is an attorney in the Solar Industry Practice Group at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, where he monitors regulatory developments and market trends and provide experienced counsel and representation in the development, financing, and construction of solar power systems.