Shadow on the solar debate
Question of feed-in tariffs vs. credits deserves a fair hearing
The sun’s daily rise is a predictable thing. A Florida legislative session, not so much.
Bright, promising proposals sometimes never make it above the clouds of politics in the halls of the capital.
That may be the case, we fear, concerning certain solar energy incentives promoted by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.
He and other advocates want the state to allow so-called feed-in tariffs, but the debate has not been given its day in the sun.
We hope it gets that opportunity, and soon. The tariff approach is controversial, but it presents appealing benefits — both economic and environmental — that deserve exploration.
Under feed-in tariffs, big electric companies are required to buy — at a higher than normal price, guaranteed through long-term contracts — the excess power produced by small-scale solar systems. Those could include your neighborhood grocery store’s rooftop solar panels, for example, or an array on municipal land.
Such installations can be expensive. The guaranteed tariff payments, combined with government rebates and such, would help defray buyers’ costs and encourage wider use of solar power. That serves the vital goal of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming.
The utilities’ strategy
As Herald-Tribune reporter Zac Anderson explained in an article Sunday, large utilities aren’t enthusiastic about the tariff approach. They tend to prefer a more centralized strategy involving "renewable energy credits," purchased through competitive bidding from big solar "farms," not rooftop providers.
In most pursuits, competitive bidding best serves the public interest. But that may not be the case this time. Credible research suggests that feed-in tariffs (also known as REPs, for renewable energy payments) do more to broaden the use of clean energy, stabilize prices and create local job opportunities.
Such diverse organizations as the Sarasota County Economic Development Corp., the Florida Farm Bureau and the Environmental Defense Fund endorse feed-in tariffs.
In an Aug. 26, 2008, letter to the Florida Public Service Commission, an Environmental Defense Fund official wrote that failure to consider REPs "would be a missed opportunity to discover a policy that results in tremendous job creation, economic development and more renewable energy per dollar invested." The letter cited a British study which "found that REPs are the most cost-effective renewable policy employed in the world today."
In Germany, where the feed-in tariff system has taken hold, "Germans pay 25 percent less per kilowatt hour for renewable energy and deploy seven times more renewable energy," the Environmental Defense Fund letter stated, citing a report by the accounting firm Ernst and Young.
Implementing solar goals
Boosting the use of solar energy is an essential part of the state’s quest to reduce its global-warming emissions from coal-, gas- and oil-fired power. Florida’s governor and Legislature have taken important steps in that direction in recent years, but they must find sound, fair ways to implement the solar goals.
The tariffs vs. credits question is central to that endeavor and deserves the Legislature’s prompt attention.
Lawmakers have a crowded agenda and limited time. We hope they reserve some of it for an open, informative debate on solar feed-in tariffs. Whether the strategy is the right one for Florida remains to be proved, but proponents should get a chance to present the evidence — before the sun sets on the annual legislative session.