Solar Energy in the Sunshine State
Florida has been famously known as the Sunshine State — an old nickname that was officially adopted in 1970 by the state legislature.
I have been researching the energy use of U.S. homes and how to reduce it for my entire career — nearly 40 years. Most of that time I’ve spent as a researcher at the Florida Solar Energy Center, which is the state’s dedicated energy research institute and part of the University of Central Florida. We are like a National Lab without being one — a state laboratory of unusual capability. There, with other able colleagues, I have studied how to cost-effectively cut energy use and improve energy efficiency of Florida homes, both in the laboratory and in the field. I have dedicated my life to learning how to do this better, with the result that we now know we could cut residential energy use in the state by 10% easily and by nearly 40% using proven but more extensive approaches.
How do I know that? Because we’ve measured it in occupied homes in large samples. We’ll share it all here in the series. If you are in Florida or neighboring states and want to cut your household consumption by 10% or even 40%, we’ll give you some proven “recipes” based on monitored research that will get you there. Although saving 40% will cost several thousand dollars, it could save you an average of $700 a year, be quite cost effective, and result in a more comfortable home.
Moreover, the simple measures saving 10% are not only easy, but typically cost less than $400 if you do them yourself. Payback in about three years. There are other advanced technologies that I’ll describe.
Imagine if there was an affordable technology that would cut your energy needed for water heating by more than two thirds while at the same time helping to cool and dehumidify your Florida home — dropping air conditioning by 5% a year. It exists, is cost-effective, and for Florida is transformative. We’ve tested it in dozens of homes and will share what we know here.
A second vision: Imagine if there was a very efficient low-power air conditioning technology that you could install and it would cut your central cooling system energy use by 33% (saving $215 a year or 1950 kWh) and provide a redundant cooling system you could use in the event of power interruption after a hurricane. Such a supplemental cooling system has been tested and evaluated. We’ll describe how to incorporate and potentially power them after a storm using a generator or rooftop solar.
Be aware, however, that the Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) in Florida would likely wish not to see you do those things. If large numbers of Floridians did so, it would save consumers a lot of money each year, but it would also reduce utility earnings and shareholder profits. Of course, those installing the measures would see utility bills plummet.
And then there is the matter of renewable solar electric generation. Amid the world explosion of solar photovoltaic (PV) power, what happened to expected solar ascendency of the Sunshine State?
In Florida, if we take Melbourne as a population-centered result, the hourly average Typical Meteorological Year (TMY3) weather data show that a roof facing south at a standard 20 degree pitch will receive about 5.13 kWh/m21 of solar irradiance. Catching that and turning it into electricity via a standard 6 kW DC PV array would produce about 8,579 kWh/year (when converted by the inverter into AC power and fed into the grid)2. Even at current efficiencies for the home and equipment, this would satisfy about half of a typical Florida home’s annual energy needs. As we will see, with greater home efficiency — which has been readily demonstrated by research sponsored by both the utilities and the U.S. DOE — the PV power produced would be suitable for 80% or more of home electricity needs.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support the Sunshine State as an accurate moniker to describe current day Florida — at least when it comes to solar electricity. Rather than being a leader in rooftop distributed solar energy production, Florida has lagged. California, Arizona, and New Jersey are far ahead, and this is not just a Deep South problem. Closer to home, Florida trails behind its state neighbors, being completely eclipsed by the likes of North Carolina and even Georgia.
With a widely known reputation for copious levels of solar energy falling on each square mile of its subtropical landscape, why has Florida lagged most of the rest of the United States?
While the solar resource in Florida is good, showing 5.0–5.5 kWh/m2 falling daily on horizontal surfaces, it is not extraordinary relative to the rest of the U.S. (see inset)3. California, Arizona, and the Southwest are better. However, the difference in uptake of solar installations across the U.S. has much more to do with other factors than it does with the resource itself.
Part of the variation in solar development from one state to the next comes from the electricity price itself. With very high electricity prices in Hawaii (imported oil is used to generate electricity), average monthly residential energy consumption has fallen from 680 kWh in 2004 to 500 kWh in 2014. Part of this is due to solar electric rooftop PV generation (behind the meter), as solar in Hawaii has grown from 1.5% of the generation mix in Hawaii in 2008 to 29% in 2014. The impetus for this spate of greater efficiency and a higher level of solar electric generation in this island state has come from the average price of electricity of $0.37 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). This is the highest cost of electricity in the nation and has led to the greatest motivation for residential and commercial customers to find alternatives in Hawaii to drop consumption.
According to the EIA, the average cost of residential electricity in the United States was approximately $0.122/kWh in 2016. The price in Hawaii (not including taxes) was $0.280 kWh. In Florida, the price was $0.112 for the same period. Another state that leads both in energy efficiency and solar renewable energy, California, has an average price of $0.177/kWh4. Thus, places where efficiency and solar energy have seen greater adoption rates are those places with higher electric rates.
However, monthly utility bills are not based solely on rates, but more so on consumption. So, how does average electricity use in these states compare? In Florida, in 2015, according to the EIA, the average residential electricity use (including all housing types) in 2015 was approximately 12,936 kWh per year. In California, the average electricity use is half as much — 6,684 kWh per year. California electricity use is lower not only because only 27% of homes use electricity for heating (versus 41% for the U.S.), but also because of extensive statewide efficiency efforts. There is also the much greater use of air conditioning in Florida. For instance, California was the first state to develop a deregulated utility market where revenues are not strictly based on sales. Hawaii, on the other hand, in spite of most homes having mainly electric appliances, has the lowest energy consumption of any state in the nation – just 6,180 kWh per year. Hawaii is known for a mild climate year round, but with significant cooling, it is clear that the high price has fueled considerable efforts at efficiency and solar hot water and solar electric installations.
Florida homes are predominantly fueled by electricity, given geographic limitations in the natural gas distribution network (only 5% of homes use natural gas and 90% of residential energy costs are for electricity). So, is Florida’s higher consumption due to the large amount of air conditioning in the state? To be sure, this explains some of the disparity since various studies have shown that average residential space cooling in single-family homes in Florida averages about 5,900 kWh per year (more in Southern Florida and less in the northern parts of the state). While one of Florida’s investor-owned utilities, FPL, loves to trot out the fact that it has the lowest utility rates around (it is an exceptionally well-run company), it is a fact that the cost for your monthly bill is not only affected by the rate, but also by the amount you consume.
The key point is that the average head of household could give a hoot about low electricity rates. What they do care about is a low monthly bill.
If we look at the average monthly bills — which include rate as well as consumption — we see that an average Florida household was spending more than the national average in 2014:
Thus, in spite of having much higher electric prices than Floridians, Californians actually spend less on energy than households in Florida. And this difference is not due solely to intensive air conditioning in Florida. A portion of this difference appears to come from the west coast state’s much more aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency savings and, more recently, the increasing saturation of rooftop solar in the state5.
The situation relative to efficiency and solar has smoldered inconclusively in Florida since 2010. What are other factors that may have impeded progress on efficiency and solar in Florida?
Given that the median household income is substantially lower in Florida ($54,600 in the state vs. $58,500 in the rest of the country), the necessary capital for the installation of efficiency measures and solar is often more challenging for Floridian households.
And then there are the demographic characteristics of the state’s 20 million people that underlie motivation. Disproportionately, there are more retirees in the state, with a famously short economic time horizon. Also, the cultural demographic of Florida is not particularly inviting for new innovations in technology. Regardless of population growth from northern cities along the coastlines, one should remember that Florida is part of the Deep South, which has not been known historically for technological leadership.
Today, the South is a political powerhouse, with more presidents from the former Confederacy than from the former Union. Florida’s current Republican governor, Rick Scott, has banned the term “climate change,” as if language choice can forestall potentially devastating sea level rise along the state’s long coastline. The scientific consensus as summarized by NOAA suggests that, by 2100, the world’s sea level will rise to between 0.3 and 2.5 meters (1–8.2 feet) above 1990 levels. If one uses popular visualization websites, it is possible to see that even a one meter sea level rise will not lead to catastrophic changes to the Florida coast line. However, such water level increase will lead to periodic inundation of canals and waterways, with flooding during king tides and heavy rains. Flooding may become a way of life. However, of much greater hazard, the higher sea levels become a “force multiplier” during hurricanes6. It is a seldom acknowledged fact that storm surge during hurricanes is by far the greatest factor in resulting deaths. Here, Florida’s long strings of coastal communities are perilously at risk. And sea level rise beyond two meters will lead to the kind of destruction to beachside communities that the Florida government would rather believe will not happen.
Unfortunately, the specter of that dreaded circumstance has recently come into focus with the risk of the sudden collapse of the Antarctic glaciers of Pine Island Bay and Thwaites — the latter having become known as the Doomsday Glacier.
Currently, the two gargantuan state-sized glaciers are melting rapidly, endangering their function as a massive threshold plug holding back enough Antarctic land ice to swell a 3–4 meters of sea-level rise of the world’s oceans. Such a rise would submerge every coastal city on Earth.
Of course, we would hope for a gradual melt of the glaciers, allowing humanity time to adapt through engineering and or migration. However, looking into the past — roughly 11,000 years ago when it was as warm as it is today — suggests that when such threshold glaciers plunge into the sea, it is more like the sudden collapse of a house of cards than a slow melt. Such a 3 meter rise in sea level could take place over an impossible-to-adapt period of 10–30 years rather than a century or more.
All of this argues that coastal regions pay particular heed to slowing the rate of greenhouse gas accumulation in the Earth’s atmosphere that will determine our future prospects. Florida, with its 1,100 miles of meandering coastlines, south, east, and west, is arguably the most at risk state for sea level rise in the continental U.S.
“Clearly our environment changes all the time,” Governor Rick Scott remarked in September 2017 after Irma, “and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that are man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.” While Governor Scott may be uncertain if climate change is real and due to human activity, his constituents seem to differ. In a recent survey of registered voters conducted by Florida Atlantic University from November 2–5, the majority of Floridians (56%) think global climate change is contributing to the strength and frequency of hurricanes, while 30% said it is not. Overall, 41% think environmental issues should be a high priority for the president and Congress, contrasted with 13% who call for a low priority.
Rooftop Solar: From Curiosity to Threat
Over the last 30 years, utilities in the state of Florida have paid lip service to solar energy and saving energy — it is good PR with the public. Citizens, after all, remain overwhelmingly enthusiastic for both saving energy and solar power — at least, as long as it isn’t expensive. Specifically, 77% of Floridians report positive attitudes toward renewable energy sources; 74% favor government standards to curb carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity; and 74% consider it “extremely important” for government to expand programs that encourage energy efficiency — such as initiatives to add insulation, upgrade lighting, and have more efficient appliances in homes and businesses.
That state of affairs continued amicably as long as the research topic of conserving energy was a nice tree-hugging idea that the utilities could officially endorse, but one that didn’t make much of a difference. Solar thermal systems were expensive relative to performance. Solar electric photovoltaic (PV) power was no threat — it was too expensive to be taken seriously. Solar electricity was mainly a topic of interest to new-age hippies looking to live in remote locations off the grid.
That was before the cost of installed solar panels was less than $2 a watt as it is today. Now, when the sun is out, there is no cheaper way to generate power. Not coal, not nuclear, not even advanced combined cycle power plants with gas at $3.5 a million BTUs (British thermal units). Yes, we all know, there is night, there are clouds and rain. What about solar then? Magic word: storage.
Right now, around the world, other than weapons research, there is no greater effort by the brightest people on the planet than the Holy Grail of low-cost electrical storage. With solar likely landing at less than $1 per watt installed, low-cost electrical storage will largely eliminate the long acknowledged Achilles heel of solar electricity. And with greater module efficiencies — now pushing 25% — it will be possible for the surface of an exposed roof to create all the power needed by the building where it might be stored and used.
Over a long career, I have had a professional relationship with many individuals within the Florida IOUs. They are a mixture of extremely intelligent — even brilliant — and dedicated individuals, but also — given the state culture — a dwindling group of institutional “good ol’ boys.” What does that mean? “You don’t want all that mess of unregulated power coming online from rooftop solar,” one such unnamed long-term traditional FPL employee lectured me two years ago. “It’s more expensive than what we can do and you don’t know what you’re getting.”
The message: we are the professionals; we know what we’re doing. You don’t.
The other unspoken word: we want to own the solar power generation in Florida and we’ll sell it to you. “Florida homeowners, our technology-averse customers and profit source, trust us — we will take care of the mysterious technology for you.” (not an actual quote)
With the price of solar electric modules in effective free-fall since 2010, by 2015, all of the good feelings about rooftop solar electricity and net metering from Florida utilities have vanished. As residential PV installations exploded in places like Arizona and Hawaii, both the research and the solar industry have run head on against contrary perspectives from investor-owned utilities.
Still, as late as 2015, FPL was claiming that utility solar plants in Florida were not cost effective. However, soon after that, utility solar projects sprouted in Georgia with astonishingly good results.
Surprise! In early 2017, FPL performed a complete about-face and announced plans for numerous solar plants in its service territory. While this is indeed good news, it is important to realize that Florida’s utilities have two faces relative to solar electric power7.
The rise of low-cost rooftop solar has placed at risk the utility business model cash cow in many parts of the U.S. To begin with, when consumers install their own home solar system, the potential stall in utility load growth will necessarily slow the rate at which new generation facilities are justified — or even halt them altogether. It all depends on numbers, population growth, and the rate of adoption.
With a large groundswell in homes generating their own electric power, the IOU investors, accustomed to dependable earnings, can lose the ability to profit off of the avoided new utility generation. Offset profit goes to the rooftop homeowner instead. Moreover, the homes with solar installed buy less electricity and a portion of the years-long revenue stream to the utilities is lost as well. Those monies go instead to the happy homeowner, with a much lower electric bill.
Finally, with “net metering,” whereby homeowners are compensated at retail electric rates, the situation changes the utilities’ past customers into business rivals. The homeowners not only get the savings, but also the profits. Not surprisingly, that vision looks lethal to traditional utilities. In a seminal report to its membership, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) warned that rooftop solar could devastate the industry, potentially resulting in “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects.”
Utility political activism has been exemplified by the high cash lobbying activism of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a front sponsored by the fossil-fuel profiting Koch brothers. Over the last several years, ALEC has carried out a stealthy and well-funded campaign against rooftop solar. That campaign was quietly successful in Florida. “We live in the Stone Age in regard to renewable power,” said Rep. Dwight Dudley, a former ranking Democrat on the energy subcommittee in the Florida House. “The power companies hold sway here, and the consumers are at their mercy.”
In 2016, all of the competing interests came to blows. First, the Florida IOUs successfully lobbied to crush a citizen-led effort to open Florida to solar competition through third-party sales as exemplified by the operations of SolarCity and its competitors. Then, the utilities composed their own deceptively worded Amendment 1 to appear on the 2016 ballot — an amendment that sounded friendly to solar, but would, in fact, give utilities leeway to slap on increased charges for rooftop installations. Despite $29 million spent promoting the amendment — $1.50 per man, woman, and child in the state — word leaked out as to why it was on the ballot and the ulterior motives of utilities seeking to undermine rooftop solar generation.
The amendment failed to pass in the election of November 2016.
Floridians want rooftop solar, the Florida investor-owned utilities do not.
While the utilities may have lost a battle with Amendment 1, the greater war continues. At the same time, each of the Florida IOUs are now building large utility-scale solar installations. So the conflict is not so much about renewable energy as it is about who will own it.
Moreover, the war is not only about rooftop solar, but about the energy efficiency of Florida’s buildings and equipment as well. Why does that matter? We’ll see shortly.
1 Called a heat pump water heater (HPWH) we measured these systems to reduce annual water heating energy by nearly 1,300 kWh per year – worth $145 saved. At the same time, this Florida suited technology can drop annual cooling by 5% or more (250 kWh/year) if installed in an interior utility room.
2 Of course, Florida is not the sunniest U.S. state. The 5.13 kWh/m2 solar irradiance in Melbourne, Florida compares to about 5.27 kWh/m2 for the same system in San Francisco or 5.52 kWh/m2 in Honolulu, Hawaii. For point of comparison: a cloudy location such as Seattle yields 3.82 kWh/m2 against a very sunny one: Phoenix, AZ at 6.43 kWh/m2. (Source: PVWatts, NREL).
3 For context, the average home has a roof area of about 180 m2; PV efficiencies are currently around 15% and average daily consumption is about 40 kWh/day in Florida. Thus even if only a quarter of the roof is useful for solar collection, with a 20% improvement in efficiency and electrical storage, most of the electrical needs can be met.
4 It is important to note that that the EIA quoted residential electric rates (www.eia.gov) are utility reported revenue-based rates, and do not include state, county, municipal and local energy related taxes that are ubiquitous and typically around 10% of overall costs paid by consumers.
5 In 2016, California had 655,226 homes with installed rooftop solar out of a total of around 7 million single family units in the state – a saturation of nearly 10%. (Source: http://californiadgstats.ca.gov/and California census data). In 2015 there were 11,600 homes and businesses in Florida that had installed rooftop net metered solar (2016 FPSC Annual Report).
6 See: Dinah Voyles Pulver, “Sea Level Rise is Accelerating in Florida, Scientists Warn,” Daytona Beach News Journal, July 22, 2017. Ezer, T. and L.P. Atkinson (2014). Accelerated flooding along the U.S. East Coast: on the impact of sea-level rise, tides, storms, the Gulf Stream, and the North Atlantic Oscillations. Earth’s Future.2, 362-382. doi:10.1002/2014EF000252
7 It is important to differentiate Florida’s municipal utilities. For instance, OUC (Orlando Utilities Commission) has very progressive utility programs looking to help Orlando citizens expand access to rooftop solar and improved efficiency. Also, until the great Florida efficiency program contraction in 2014, Gulf Power Company and Duke Energy Florida had strong efficiency programs. Today Duke Energy in the Carolinas still has strong efficiency programs, largely due to more effective regulatory leadership.
Check out Part #1 of this series here:
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