Solar energy gains ground in Florida

Damon Corkern, who works for ECS Solar Energy Systems, Inc, installs a solar panel system on the roof of a home in Gainesville, Fla.

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Kai Ryssdal: Gainesville, Florida sits right in the heart of the Sunshine State. It's probably best know for its powerhouse college football team, the University of Florida Gators. The city's also started attracting attention for power of a different sort. Solar energy. Panels are popping up all over the city. So are the economic benefits. Jennifer Collins has more from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.


JENNIFER COLLINS: Gary Rowell owns a tire shop in Gainesville, and this is what he thinks about climate change.

GARY ROWELL: I don't believe in global warming to 100 percent. I think it's mostly bull.

That said, Rowell has installed two sets of solar panels. One on his house and one on his shop. He's even running ads on local radio. Because despite his doubts about global warming, Rowell wants to let customers know he's gone green.

AD: Gainesville Tire Service, we'll make it happen. We're extremely proud of the sizeable investment just installed here at our shop. You won't notice anything different when you drive up, but there are a 144 solar panels on our roof now.

The system cost more than $200,000 to install. But Rowell expects to get that money back and more. That's because this spring Gainesville adopted a solar incentive program that's the first of its kind in this country.

Over the next 20 years, the city-owned utility will pay Rowell and others who put up solar panels for all of the power they generate. And it'll pay well, about three times the current retail rate for electricity. For Rowell, that adds up to about $18,000 a year. Gainesville designed the program with this question in mind:

ED REGAN: What does the payment have to be to make it a good investment for the owner?

Ed Regan heads the program for Gainesville's utility. He says in most of the country, people who put up solar panels don't have the option of selling their power to the grid. And if they do, they typically get far less than the retail rate in return.

Gainesville's paying for this incentive program by increasing utility bills about $10 a year. It's all part of the city's plan to get 20 percent of its power from renewable energy in the next five years.

To see how the program's working, Regan only has to head out onto his office balcony.

REGAN: You see that flat shiny thing with the kind of square looking things. That's a 75 kw solar array right there. Right behind those trees there's a bunch on those buildings over there another 100 kw.

Regan's looking at enough solar panels to run about 35 homes. And as new ones come online this year that figure will jump to 800 homes. That's got the solar installation companies in town scrambling.

Wayne Irwin owns Pure Energy Solar. He and his crew are at a ranch house in Gainesville, installing a three kilowatt solar array. That system should provide about half the home's energy needs. Right now, Gainesville's solar incentive program has at least a five-year waiting list.

But Irwin says the program has sparked so much interest in solar, that some folks who don't want to wait in line are buying panels anyway, just to save on their electric bill.

WAYNE IRWIN: There's no question as to whether it will payback. With all the incentives available in Florida, it's possible to realize your return on investment in the first year and then everything after that's gravy.

Thanks to that gravy, Irwin expects his work load to quadruple this year. And he's already talking to Gary Rowell about installing a third set of panels. Rowell's motivation...

ROWELL: I got five grandkids, and I said you know what: I'm gonna do it for them if I do nothing else.

As it is, Rowell expects to earn $300,000 over the next 20 years. And he wants that money to be there when those grandkids head off to college.

In Gainesville, I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.

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