Last year, my father did what too many Floridians want to avoid but can’t: he broke his hip. I spent a good deal of time flying across the Sunshine State visiting him, often under sunny skies that showcased stunning views while I sat buckled into a window seat.
But it wasn’t what I saw from the air that surprised me. It was what I didn’t see: solar panels. None of them. Never saw a single one during dozens of flights. Sure, there is a smattering of them in Florida, harvesting free sunshine into valuable power. But with Florida due to surpass New York as America’s third most populous state this year, so grows the state’s enormous demand for electricity to cool homes and businesses; power the next generation of computers, flat screen TV’s and phones; and keep hospitals and schools running.
Where does Florida find this additional power? The answer to that question should be evident to the most famous of Floridians, citrus farmers. We all know the state quenches America’s thirst for the world’s best oranges, grapefruits, and other citrus crops—all from Florida sunshine. Florida’s farmers are experts at maximizing yield, producing quality products, and turning natural resources into dollars for their families and communities. Yet, a far larger, low-hanging harvest waits right now in solar, and no one’s moving a finger. Somehow, intentionally or not, the wires got crossed. The message hasn’t gotten through.
It’s time for Florida to harvest the sun.
To date, by any measure, Florida has done a poor job at this harvest. Despite massive solar resources, Florida finished 17th among states for solar power installations in 2012. Its state solar policies lag behind many others in the nation. It has no renewable portfolio standard and bans citizens from entering into power purchase agreements. These are two straightforward, smart, state policy pillars that drive solar investment in most other states.
So what did Florida do in 2013 to fix the problem? Nothing. Florida fell further – dropping to 18th in the solar polls, leapfrogged by none other than that beacon of sunshine and radiance, Missouri. Yes, Missouri. If I were a coach for Team Florida Solar, I’d have to answer the reporters and fans with some trite cliché like, “You’ve got to hand it to Missouri. They have a heckuva lot of sun and their population is booming. Good game.”
Huh? Nonsense. What Missouri is doing is mounting a serious effort at turning its sunshine into economic wealth, despite solar resources that pale to those of Miami, Jacksonville or Orlando. Florida didn’t even try to compete.
The sad part about this comparison is that this isn’t a football or basketball game. This is the harsh reality of demographics, economics, new industry, jobs, and energy security. Today, there are 143,000 Americans employed in solar at more than 6,500 companies, mostly small businesses spread across the country, boosting local economies and creating clean power, with no waste to poison the Gulf, the Atlantic, or Lake Okeechobee. Meanwhile, the cost of solar has fallen by more than half in the last two years, making it competitive for tens of millions of Americans. But from Fort Myers to Vero Beach, no one seems to be paying any attention.
Or maybe they are. And maybe it’s happening in Tallahassee. Maybe the utilities in Florida would rather not call your attention to the fact that Florida is one of the only states in the nation that bans its citizens from entering into power purchase agreements to put solar on their rooftops. Why? Utilities don’t like losing business. Maybe they prefer to sell power from dirty coal, until someone asks them to let a little light in. Maybe that’s why this week Latino and environmental groups launched a small but earnest media campaign in Tampa and Orlando hitting utilities for “trying to kill rooftop solar, even though poor neighborhoods could use the energy savings.” Maybe the folks Floridians elected to make the smart choices for the state’s economy, environment and health are looking the other way.
Florida, don’t let 2014 turn out like last year. Don’t let another state with a sliver of the Sunshine State’s solar harvest leapfrog you again. All Floridians should have the right to choose a low-cost, competitive provider to put solar on their roofs like other Americans can today. And why not move forward instead of trying so hard to stand still? Number three in population? Why not number three in solar, too?
The next steps are up to you.