Solar MythBusters #1: Clouds blocking solar in the Sunshine State?

Stephen Smith | December 13, 2013 | Climate Change, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Solar, Utilities

SACE staff member Charlie Coggeshall contributed to this post.

This is the first in a series of blogs on solar myths; stay tuned for future MythBuster posts in the coming months!

Orlando Utility Commission (OUC) Vice President Chip Merriam recently propagated one of the greatest myths about solar – often heard in our region – while speaking on a panel at the 2013 National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Annual meeting, held in Orlando, FL.  The myth, “solar does not perform well in Florida due to clouds,” is factually inaccurate as is the claim that “clouds” are the real reasons solar power development is lagging in the Sunshine State.  Of course OUC’s Chip Merriam is not alone, Florida Power and Light (FPL) and other Florida utilities parrot this refrain with regularity. Merriam waxed poetically about the state being a peninsula with a sea breeze effect which leads to increased clouds and thunderstorms “almost every afternoon,” and in turn a less reliable source of solar energy.

While we untangle this ball of misinformation, first, let us say that SACE agrees that there’s a sea breeze effect, and we’d actually argue that the breeze could and should be tapped by coastal and offshore wind turbines for valuable daytime electricity generation, as discussed here. Second, yes there are passing clouds from time to time in Florida’s skies and even occasional afternoon thunderstorms, but this does not make solar photovoltaic (PV) technology a poor option. A different solar technology, large scale solar concentrating arrays, do appear to be more sensitive to the passing clouds. FPL’s hybrid solar concentrating and natural gas facility in Martin County is an example of this technology.

Of course Mr. Merriam failed to provide any documentation for his misinformation, all the while asserting that Florida is not a good locale for solar PV development.  The reality is that the Sunshine State’s under-achievement in solar development has more to do with poor state policies and utilities’ executives misleading customers and policy makers than the quality of the state’s solar resource.

Here are some facts: Florida has the best annual solar resource east of the Mississippi River (see map below) and better than more than 70% of the United States. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s PVWatts tool shows that a 6 kilowatt (kW) solar system in Tampa – about average size for a residential system – will produce 8,183 kW hours (kWh) of energy in one year, compared to the same system in Boston which will produce 7,462 kWh. A difference of 721 kWh – or nearly a month’s worth of electricity for the average U.S. household. An even more extreme example is Germany, which has about the same annual solar resource as Alaska (see map), yet managed to install more capacity in 2012 alone than the cumulative total for the entire United States.

Not only does Florida have a strong solar resource, it has great market potential for solar development, it’s the fourth most populated state in the country (behind only New York in the east), and it ranks third highest in technical potential for rooftop solar.

Despite Florida’s wealth of sunshine, people, and rooftops, the state is not keeping up with the rapidly growing solar industry elsewhere in the US. That’s costing the state jobs and economic opportunity. As reported by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Florida trails 17 other states in the amount of capacity installed in the third quarter of 2013, nine of which were on the east coast: North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Delaware, Maryland, and Georgia.

And the third quarter was not a fluke. Florida’s been falling off the solar leader board for several years. In 2009, Florida ranked 6th for total solar electric capacity. Today, it ranks 11th with 206 MW (13th, with 131 MW, when you consider only photovoltaics (PV) – i.e., no concentrating solar power). Four states (NJ, NC, MA, PA) on the east coast have more cumulative solar electric capacity than Florida, despite the fact that the Sunshine State is the sunniest of them all. Why you ask? Because those states have good state policies.

Let’s look at a smaller, less sunny state that also has a few clouds – North Carolina. North Carolina is more fully developing its solar market with policy and regulatory leadership. North Carolina has a state investment tax credit as well as a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS). Another southern state, Georgia, is also poised to eclipse Florida as regulators there took advantage of the most recent integrated resource plan (IRP) – a process which could greatly benefit Floridians – by setting a target that at least 525 MW of solar be offered for development on top of the initial Advanced Solar Initiative capacity of 210 MW and Large-Scale Solar Initiative of 50 MW, all without raising rates. One Georgia regulator, Bubba McDonald, even called out Florida for not living up to it’s “sunshine” name with regards to weak leadership in solar development. Yes, there are a few clouds in Georgia too.

Immediate policy changes could remove the barriers that cloud Florida’s solar market. That requires political leadership that has been sorely missing in Tallahassee. We can start removing burdensome taxes on solar. Unlock the state’s solar market to private investment by eliminating the tangible personal property tax for solar equipment – a tax which can unfairly target third party solar leases. Additionally, exempt solar systems sited on commercial property from assessed value, similar to the recent exemption on residential property.  Taking these steps could put Florida back in the top ten for total solar electric capacity where we belong.

So the clouds of misinformation have cleared, making it clear that Florida has a great solar resource and one of the best solar market potentials in the world, all we need is policy leadership and utilities that will not mislead the public.

Clouds blocking Florida’s solar future? BUSTED!

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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