Bruce Ritchie: PSC chairman questions Florida’s solar potential but gets his facts askew

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Florida may not be the No. 1 state when it comes to solar energy potential, but it’s surely higher than Alaska.

Public Service Commission Chairman Art Graham said during a recent meeting that his office had done some digging into the issue of Florida’s solar potential.

What he described as facts were misleading, in my opinion, although that could be debated. But his remarks also point out some interesting ways to analyze solar energy.

The PSC had been getting hammered by some news media and environmentalists for a staff recommendation siding with utilities seeking to gut energy conservation programs and eliminate solar energy rebate programs.

“I think the whole ‘Sunshine State’ is just a license plate slogan,” Graham said during a Nov. 25 commission meeting. “It is not necessarily the case.”

He said some critics say Florida ranks third in solar energy potential. But Graham said Florida is ranked 22nd in solar potential by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“I think it’s interesting you read all that other stuff out there that is not factual,” he said.

The PSC voted 3-2 to approve the staff recommendation, an action that was followed by more criticism. The commission also agreed to hold a public workshop on solar programs that would be cost-effective in Florida.

Graham is right that Florida may not live up to its Sunshine State nickname.

Western states including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado rank higher in available sunshine based on a National Renewable Energy Laboratory map.

Florida has a lot of rain and clouds compared to those states, as Graham pointed out.

But it’s misleading to say Florida ranks 22nd (21st actually). Graham’s statement was based on a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory ranking the potential for utility-scale solar energy in rural areas.

That gives more weight to rural states such as Minnesota (ranked fifth), North Dakota (eighth) and Alaska (13th) that don’t receive a lot of sunlight but have more land area. They also don’t have as many homes and businesses to use solar energy.

Florida ranks third in potential for solar energy on rooftops — behind California and Texas — and more than double the closest ranked states of Illinois, Ohio and New York.

James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa, said Florida’s third-place ranking for rooftop solar shows the state’s real potential. But he also said the maps and rankings don’t really matter.

What does matter, Fenton said, is the price of electricity purchased from utilities versus the price of solar energy.

When the cost of solar becomes competitive, then it doesn’t matter what state you live in or how much sunshine it gets, he said.

Solar energy is becoming competitive in some northern states with less sunshine, he said, because they are paying more for electricity as the cost of coal used to produce it has gone up.

That’s why New Jersey has more solar per household than Florida, Fenton said. The same with Germany.

Florida has been slower to realize its solar potential because the price of natural gas has been dropping, he said, and most electricity in Florida is produced by natural gas.

Fenton demonstrated an interactive map produced by the Institute for Local Self Reliance. With the current 30 percent federal tax credit, the map suggests solar already could supply 10 percent of Florida’s energy needs now rather than the less than the 1 percent it supplies. And that potential will increase sharply in the next few years.

“What it (solar energy potential) really has to do with is the price,” Fenton said. “The price is coming down fast. We are eventually going to get our act together.”

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.comColumn courtesy of Context Florida.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.