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When Will the Sunshine State Embrace Solar Power?

06/23/2010 03:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Florida is famous for its abundant sunshine. Yet the state's small solar businesses are expecting cloudy skies this summer. The Florida Legislature, citing another tough budget cycle, has failed to renew a state rebate program which provided incentives for solar providers working to sell renewable energy to Florida customers.

It was called the Solar Energy Systems Incentives Program, and it sunsets (no pun intended) June 30th. A firm called Blue Chip Energy recently announced it's launching its own solar rebate program to fill the gap; however, the loss of the statewide incentive program is seen as a blow to the development of renewables here.

I recently interviewed Frank Erickson, CEO of Jacksonville-based Erickson Energy, about the alternative and renewable energy picture here. He presents a gloomy forecast for renewable energy development in Florida -- the very location bracing, along with other Gulf states, for the worst as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill continues to spew millions of gallons of crude every week.

"It's very disappointing. We've developed several projects that have been shelved, and we've had to direct our resources to other states. In a couple of weeks there won't be any more projects in Florida," said Erickson, who is now looking for business in Georgia and South Carolina, states that have a stronger commitment to solar power.

Meanwhile, Florida still hasn't created what 29 other states and the District of Columbia did some time ago -- a Renewable Portfolio Standard. An RPS establishes that a certain percentage of a state's energy must come from renewable sources -- be they solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, or others.

According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the upfront costs of establishing an RPS would be offset by the growth of cleantech jobs that follow investment in clean energy. They project some 50,000 jobs in this space over the next ten years if Florida gets serious about renewables. Tom Larson, Florida Energy Policy Manager for the advocacy group, told our "First Coast Connect" audience that the key to making renewables more affordable and accessible over time is allowing third parties to sell power -- which is still not legal in Florida.

"If we were to undertake the direction that the Florida Public Service Commission studied and recommended to the Legislature, we'd see 50,000 jobs for the construction industry, for engineers and program developers... With the concerns about the oil offshore and the opportunities that are being left unattended here, the next legislative session in Florida should be very active on this issue," Larson said.

Florida may well lag behind other states in converting to a clean energy economy, but as Jon Stewart so incisively pointed out last week, the last EIGHT American presidents have promised to cure America of its addiction to oil. The foot-dragging isn't new -- or confined to just a few states.

A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trust found that for the first time ever, the United States has fallen behind China in overall clean energy investment. In fact, America trails several of our G-20 partners in what we're spending to develop alternative and renewable energy sources.

Which begs the question -- if the oil spill isn't the tipping point that finally forces Americans to commit to a renewable energy future, then what will be?

Fossil fuels supply 85% of the nation's energy. That percentage won't change without a wholesale commitment to stake out a new path, both at the state and federal levels. Floridians are bracing for tar balls on our beaches this summer, and a devastating blow to our tourism-based economy. That's bad enough -- but as Dr. Quinton White, who heads up the Marine Science Research Institute at Jacksonville University, said recently on our radio program:

As bad as it is, and as bad as it's going to get, the oil spill probably won't force real change. I don't think we'll see a major shift to renewables until everyday Americans drive up to the pump and gas is $7 a gallon.

Is White right? "The situation is very fluid right now," Larson said. "We don't know which direction energy policy will go." In other words, it's sort of like watching the oil's muddled path toward our shores.