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Solar Co-op program launches in Tampa Bay

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Environmentalists have been clamoring for lawmakers and public utilities to embrace more solar power in Florida for decades, but the marketplace may be the biggest driver in seeing more solar now happening in the Sunshine State.

“The price for solar has come down exponentially,” says Susan Glickman with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Solar installations have gone down 65 percent over the past five years, specified Rick Garrity, Hillsborough County’s environmental protection commission director from 2000-2015, adding that homeowners can still get a 30 percent federal tax credit for purchasing solar panels.

Garrett and Glickman were part of a group of solar advocates who gathered in front of the Flex Building on the USF campus in Tampa on Monday, where they announced the launch of a rooftop solar co-op program for homeowners in Hillsborough and northern Pinellas counties.

The program is an alliance between the Florida Solar United Neighborhoods (FLSUN) and Florida League of Women Voters that was formed a year ago (the first co-op started in St. Petersburg in early 2016) and now has more than 2,700 members operating in 17 counties throughout the state, 500 of whom have signed up for solar.

Angela DeMonbreun, the director of FLSUN, said that once a minimum of between 30 to 40 people sign up for the program (via, FLSUN will facilitate a request for proposal process from interested solar operators. She stressed that it is a community-driven process, with community members ultimately choosing the installer.

DeMonbreun said that homeowner will then receive an individual proposal from that installer, and it’s up to him or her to decide whether to go ahead with the process.

“We take the intimidation out of the process and give you the basic tools to make you feel empowered to make your decision,” she said, adding that signing up for the co-op does not mean you are obligated to ultimately purchases sonar panels.

The program received seed money from the Hillsborough County Commission, which unanimously approved $15,000 in funding to the county’s Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) to support the launch co-op program through May of 2018. The compensation was proposed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, who cited significant investments by some of Florida’ biggest public utilities.

“Right now Florida is spending $58 billion a year on fossil fuels that come from out of state, not from Florida,” said Kemp. “This is a time for us to invest in our great natural resource to provide local jobs.”

A longtime critic of investor-owned utilities for not embracing clean energy technologies, Glickman lauded a recent deal announced by Florida Power & Light with Tucson Electric Power, an Arizona utility company, with an agreement to buy solar power at three cents a kilowatt hour and four-and-half-cents for battery storage.

“That’s less than you would spend a new natural gas plant,” she said.

FP&L and Duke Energy have called for changing the net metering laws which could affect homeowners with solar power negatively in the future. The changes include imposing a monthly service charge on people with solar systems or reducing the net metering rate to reflect the industry’s claim that solar users subsidize other ratepayers.

Janet Doughtery, the woman who replaced Garrity in 2015 as head of the Hillsborough County’s EPC, said in addition to supporting solar, the public needs to support science.

“Our science has been cut at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), at EPA, at the local level all the environmental agencies have been cut drastically from funding,” she said. “Without data research, we cannot carry forward all of these initiatives, including solar.”

Gulfport resident Brenda Probasco had been interested in getting solar power on her roof for years, and the initial bid she received from a solar operator was for $12,500. After signing up with FLSUN, that request was reduced to $10,600, a figure she said she was able to negotiate down to $9,600, which she says she intends to pay back in five and a quarter years.

Meanwhile, her utility bill for last month totaled $5.49. 

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at [email protected]

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