Alachua County residents form solar co-op to go solar together, get a discount

Neighbors in Alachua County have formed a solar co-op to save money and make going solar easier, while building a network of solar supporters. Suwannee St. John’s Sierra Club, League of Women Voters Alachua County, Swamp Head Brewery, Earthkeepers, Interfaith Climate Group, Ygrene Energy Fund, We Are Neutral, and FL SUN are the co-op sponsors. The group is seeking members and will host an information meeting on April 30 at 3 p.m. at the Alachua County Library Headquarters (401 East University Avenue) to educate the community about solar and the co-op process.

Alachua County residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the co-op web page. Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels. Once the group is large enough, FL SUN will help the co-op solicit competitive bids from area solar installers.

Co-op members will select a single company to complete all of the installations. They will then have the option to purchase panels individually based on the installer’s group rate. By going solar as a group and choosing a single installer, participant can save up to 20% off the cost of their system.

As solar grows in Florida, solar customers should be aware

Solar adoption is growing across the Sunshine State at an impressive clip. This isn’t surprising given solar’s recent dramatic drop in price and Floridians’ desire to take control of where our energy comes from. A new report by the Solar Foundation finds the number of solar companies in the state now stands near 400.

But this quick expansion has a downside. As with any rapidly growing industry, disreputable or unqualified companies are springing up to take advantage of eager but ill-informed customers. It is important to understand how prospective solar customers can protect themselves. Below are suggestions to ensure you have a good experience going solar.

Get multiple bids Don’t just opt for the first solar company that contacts you. Shop around. This will allow you to compare different installers’ pricing and customer service operations.

Check references The installer you select should be able to provide you with multiple examples of work the company has done with satisfied customers. You should look for references whose project was similar (e.g. roof type, system size) to yours. Keep in mind, if the reference is someone directed to you by the installer, it is likely they will provide a positive review. Also check with the Better Business Bureau and sites like Yelp and Angie’s List as well.

Carefully review the terms of the deal This can be the trickiest part of going solar. It is important you understand the full details of your contract. Important questions to ask include who owns the system and what parts of the system are warrantied.

It is important that as more and more Floridians are going solar, the community of solar supporters grows along with it. FL SUN works with communities to educate them about solar technology and the process of going solar. Our goal is to create an informed market where solar customers are protected and the market continues to grow. Sign up for the FL SUN listserv to connect with solar homeowners and prospective homeowners. This is a great forum to get your questions about solar answered.

Additional resources

Check out these resources below if you would like more information about working with a qualified solar company.

Rooftop solar can create 135,000 Florida jobs over the next decade

by Will Driscoll

Solar energy not only helps homeowners save money on their electric bills, it also creates jobs. New data show just how many jobs that could be in Florida. A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that Florida could produce 46 percent of its electricity needs by installing 76,000 megawatts (MW) of rooftop solar capacity. Installing that much rooftop solar in Florida would yield about 135,000 jobs for ten years.

The NREL figure represents Florida’s technical potential for solar. Technical potential refers to what is physically possible, tempered by common sense—e.g., no panels where they would be shaded for much of the day. NREL calculated the amount of solar that could be produced on unshaded roof planes that are either nearly flat, or that face east, southeast, south, southwest, or west. If any such roof plane could accommodate at least 1.5 kilowatts of solar panels, NREL modeled solar on that roof plane. Adding these areas together yielded a technical potential of 76,000 MW of rooftop solar in Florida.

NREL assumed an average solar panel efficiency of 16 percent, and noted that if panels averaging 20 percent efficiency were used, the solar potential would be 25 percent greater (because 20 is that much greater than 16). At least three firms make solar panels exceeding 20 percent efficiency.

The technical potential is just a theoretical concept. Yet the economic potential–that is, the rooftop solar installations that would save building owners money–may not be far behind. This will be especially true over the next decade, as solar costs keep falling due to technology improvements and economies of scale. In the coming years, solar’s economic potential will keep rising.

Florida’s estimated job potential from rooftop solar is based on the Solar Foundation’s count of 260,077 U.S. solar workers in 2016, and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s reported 2016 U.S. solar installations of 14,626 megawatts. Dividing the two yields almost 18 workers per megawatt of solar installed.

Finally, spacing out the installation of NREL’s 76,000 megawatts of Florida rooftop solar over ten years would mean 7,600 megawatts of rooftop solar installed annually. Multiply that times about 18 workers per megawatt and you get 135,000 jobs—for a ten-year period. Jobs from utility-scale and community-scale solar would be additional.

For rooftop installations, the number of jobs per megawatt installed would arguably be higher than the U.S. average in 2016. This is because rooftop jobs are smaller and more labor-intensive than utility-scale solar projects, which were included in the average. On the other hand, with a big increase in the size of the rooftop solar industry, economies of scale should also come into play. On balance, a potential 135,000 rooftop solar jobs in Florida for ten years is a reasonable ballpark estimate.

Will Driscoll is a writer and analyst. He previously conducted environmental analyses for EPA, as a project manager for ICF Consulting. He earned a master’s degree in economics and policy from Princeton.

Broward residents select installers for solar co-ops

FL SUN and Go Solar Florida-Broward County have organized more than 100 area residents to go solar together through the East Broward Solar Co-op and the West Broward Solar Co-op. The group of East Broward homeowners selected SEM and the group of West Broward homeowners selected Guardian Solar through competitive bidding processes to install systems for the co-ops’ members. Organized with the help of Broward County and many local partners, the collaboration is enabling participating homeowners to install solar panels on their homes at discounted rates.

SEM and Guardian Solar will develop individualized proposals for East Broward and West Broward co-op participants respectively. Co-op members will review their proposal and sign a contract with their selected installer if they decide to go solar.

The East and West Broward Solar Co-ops will be open and available to new participants through April 27. All Broward County residents are eligible to participate. Visit www.flsun.org/east-broward and www.flsun.org/west-broward to learn more about solar and to sign up to join the group. Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels.

Deciphering your utility bill

Before you go solar, it can be helpful to understand what it is you’re currently paying your utility and where the charges come from. Below we’ve broken down the sections from a typical utility bill to help you understand where your money goes.

Rate: This is how much your utility charges based upon the type of dwelling that is being metered. Utilities charge residents, businesses, and industrial facilities different rates. The Florida Public Service Commission is responsible for regulating the state’s utilities and approving their requests for rate increases. These requests are managed through a legal proceeding at the Commission.

Customer charge: The customer charge is paid whether or not you use any electricity or not. This is important for solar customers to consider. Even if you are able to offset all of your energy consumption, there will still be this small charge to pay.

Non-fuel charge: This is the portion of your electric rate that goes to pay for maintaining the transmission system and power plants.

Fuel-charge: This what you pay for the fuel used to generate your electricity.

Storm charge: This charge is to repay bonds resulting from storm cleanup needs from the 2004-2005 hurricane season

Gross receipts tax: This is a tax paid to the state of Florida.

Franchise charge: This is paid to municipalities to allow the utility to operate in their jurisdiction.

Utility tax: This is tax levied by municipalities on utility service.

Below is a bill from the same home after the installation of solar panels.

Senate considers bill to enable more Floridians to go solar

Last August, Florida voters resoundingly voted in favor of solar by passing Amendment 4. Amendment 4, which passed by an impressive 73-27% margin, reduces the tax burden placed on solar in Florida. This will allow more Floridians to go solar. But voting for Amendment 4 wasn’t enough. We now need the Florida legislature to pass legislation to enact the provisions of the Amendment.

Legislation has been introduced in the Senate (SB 90) to put the vote of a strong majority of Florida voters into law. The bill would eliminate personal property tax and real estate taxes on solar energy systems.

Floridians for Solar Choice has developed a script solar supporters can use to urge their senators to support these important changes and enable more solar in Florida. Click here to find contact information for your senators.

I am urging you to vote to pass SB 90 for a clean implementation of Amendment 4. Amendment 4 passed unanimously in the Legislature last session and then with 73% support of the voters in the August primary. It now needs your vote to be implemented. Thank you for listening to your constituents and supporting smart energy policy!

Video explores solar’s declining cost and benefit to Florida’s economy

The cost of solar has dropped rapidly over the past several years. A new video from the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) shows just how much it has declined and what that means for homeowners interested in going solar. The narrator, FSEC Director Dr. James Fenton, demonstrates that solar is competitive today with other electricity sources and makes a great investment for homeowners. He goes on to explain why putting our money in solar also keeps it here in Florida.

Florida Solar Today and Florida’s Bright Tomorrow Solar (Utility, Community, Rooftop) and Electric Vehicles – 10 minutes from Florida Solar Energy Center on Vimeo.

Sarasota co-op selects installer to serve group

Members of the Sarasota Solar Co-op have selected Solar Energy Management, LLC (SEM) through a competitive bidding process to install systems for the co-op’s members.

The participating homeowners worked with FL SUN to solicit competitive bids from a dozen solar installers. The selection committee, made up of co-op members, chose an installer they felt had the best experience, capacity and pricing to serve the group.

SEM’s experience, history of success, and locality were the major deciding factors in their selection. The company will develop individualized proposals for each co-op participant. Co-op members will review their proposal and sign a contract with the installer if they decide to go solar. Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels.

The co-op is open to new participants through May 1. All Sarasota County residents are eligible to participate. Sarasota residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up for more information at www.FLSun.org/sarasota.

Installing a system for future storage connection

Pairing solar installations with battery storage is an attractive idea for many people who are thinking about going solar. Battery storage provides piece of mind that even if you are unable to get electricity from the grid (e.g. during a storm) you will still have power.

Despite this benefit, battery storage remains an expensive proposition for many. At the same time, the market for batteries is growing rapidly. This rapid growth is coupled with quickly declining prices. So, even if battery storage may not pencil out for solar customers today, it is possible it will in the near future. Fortunately, solar systems can be built with the addition of a future storage system in mind.

When building a system for future storage, it is important to make sure your grid-tied inverter’s power rating doesn’t exceed that of a future battery. Battery sizes range from 4,000-7,000 watts. So, let’s say you have a 9,000 watt system, you would want to purchase two smaller inverters, say 6,000 and 3,000 watt ones, rather than one 9,000 watt inverter. This will allow you to rewire the electricity from the smaller inverter into your future battery system.

This can be accomplished through AC coupling. AC coupling refers to the interface between the solar array and the inverter. This takes place physically in your home’s circuit panel. The battery installer will add an additional breaker panel that covers the outlets that can be powered with the electricity stored in your battery system. These outlets will be the ones connected to your “critical loads” such as your refrigerator.

There is an added cost to having two smaller inverters, rather than one larger inverter. The cost will vary, but expect to pay between $500 and $1,000 for the two smaller ones.

It is also possible to connect systems that use micro inverters to batteries. The key is to arrange the strings in a way that a portion of your system is set up to send electricity to a future battery system.

If you are thinking about adding battery back up, let your installer know before they install the system. This ensures they will design your system to be storage compatible and to minimize the additional work that would have to be done to install batteries when you do decide to add storage.

Solar discussion draws big crowd in Naples

The Collier County League of Women Voters held a solar forum earlier this month. Almost 100 turned out to the Naples Botanical Gardens to learn from others’ varied solar experiences. Neville Williams, a longtime, international solar developer and author of “Sunpower” and other books, moderated the panel.

Jim Henderson, a Naples area businessman who owns Collier County’s largest commercial solar array, shared his experience about “going solar” on his warehouse used for his moving and storage company. Mary Dipboye described how FL SUN was bringing solar co-ops to communities around the state and how they benefit homeowners by make “going solar” easier and more affordable.

Chad Washburn, Deputy Director of the Naples Botanical Garden — he shared how his father had built a passive solar system for his childhood home. He also discussed the Naples Botanical Garden use of solar. It installed solar PV panels to help supply the electrical needs of the Garden’s laboratories.

If you are interested in holding a similar discussion in your community, reach out to Mary Dipboye, FL SUN Advisory Committee member at mdipboye@yahoo.com.