My Research: Political Barriers to Solar PV in Florida – Local strategies (3/3)
Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series of blog posts that delve into the findings of my thesis research. Part 1 outlined the key insights from the research. In the second part I dug a bit deeper into the individual policy and regulatory barriers and described their impacts. Part 3 now explores strategies at the county and city level to deploy more solar within the prevailing policy framework.
Florida: sub-state level
The expert interviews with county and city-level officials from Florida , together with solar company representatives , working across the state shine light on proven pathways to greater solar adoption (click here for interviewee list). They are already taking steps within the existing legislative and regulatory framework. This post showcases some policy tools that interviewees suggest hold potential for boosting further solar PV growth in the state leveraging financing models, solar discounts, measures to overcome soft barriers and sub-state policy coordination.
Counties or municipalities in Florida can opt into the property assessed clean energy (PACE) program to finance home improvements or clean energy investments. PACE enables homeowners – since 2016 also those with a Federal Housing Administration, FHA, mortgage – to put a first (or second in the case of FHA) lien on the property to pay off the cost of a solar system as an addition to the property tax. Select companies such as Vinyasun already offer zero-down payments with payback periods of 5-25 years under this scheme. Participating in PACE does not affect a person’s credit score and the lien can be transferred when the property is sold. Multiple counties across Florida have coordinated and passed enabling legislation for PACE, forming for instance the Green Corridor in Miami-Dade County. Interviewees report that PACE is increasingly used to fund renewable energy investments besides its dominant use for funding home repairs (e.g. after hurricanes).
An alternative way to secure renewable energy finance is through the Solar and Energy Loan Fund (SELF). The nonprofit organization behind SELF operates a revolving loan fund and collaborates closely with municipalities in eastern Florida. SELF specifically targets low and middle-income households but also businesses eager to make energy efficiency improvements and provides loans at an interest rate of around 6-8%, over a period of up to ten years. According to the interviewees, there is still ample demand to be met, especially for solar PV loans, which so far only make up 2% of all loans.
Unperturbed by Florida’s existing ban on PPAs and the enactment of Amendment 4 that may kickstart solar leasing, Florida has steadily grown a grassroots movement of local solar co-ops. Interviewees particularly praised Florida Solar United Neighborhood, FL SUN in short, a project by the Community Power Network and the Florida League of Women Voters, who have installed at least 1.9 MW of PV capacity on residential homes since they launched in 2015 and achieved USD 950,000 in savings for over 200 signed members through co-op discounts. In Orange County, FL SUN facilitated for instance 20% of all its net metered PV installs. Under the co-op model, FL SUN aggregates the solar preferences of around 20-30 interested residents in one geographic region and manages a competitive bidding process of solar installers, who on average provide bulk discounts of up to 20% to receive the contract with all co-op members.
Similar in design to the co-op model described above, the City of Orlando in partnership with the Orlando Utilities Commission, a municipally-owned public utility, developed a Solar Aggregation Model that helps organized homeowners and businesses realize discounts on their solar PV arrays down to USD 2 per Watt.
For local governments, the Qualified Energy Conservation Bond (QECB) a federally subsidized bond scheme represents a considerable pool of resources to tap into. The scheme has the particular allure, in the view of one official, because there is more planning certainty than with one-off federal stimulus money. QECBS can finance energy efficiency improvements for public buildings, green community programs and renewable energy production including solar. A fixed share of the projects need to be realized with low and middle-income residents. In total, close to USD 176 million were allocated in 2015 to Florida’s counties and municipalities. Broward County for instance utilizes some of the allocated money to run a renewable energy loan program, which was estimated to cover approximately 500-700 residential projects at conventional solar system prices.
Overcoming soft barriers
Local governments and solar advocates are popular disseminators of information about solar rights, restrictions and project viability. One interviewee shared that her organization’s “Solar Help Team” receives on average 200 email inquiries per week with people asking most often about the technical viability of solar in their locality (20% of inquiries), the cost of solar (20%) and the specificities of net metering (10%). The demand for reliable information is high; particularly among members of homeowner community associations, HOAs, of which there are 7,500 in Central Florida alone. County-level officials recount how HOAs repeatedly impose restrictive bylaws and covenants that infringe on property owner’s rights to deploy rooftop solar.
The GoSolar Initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Energy is one of the most popular attempts to help counties become early adopters of solar-friendly policies through measures such as streamlined PV permitting, implementation of zoning regulations favorable to rooftop installations and mainstreaming of financing options. As an example, GoSolar has expedited the permitting cost to an hour and reduced the associated costs by 80%, successes that need to be replicated across different geographies to pave the way for further solar co-op expansion. As of early 2017, counties and municipalities representing cumulatively over 40% of Florida’s population adopted a resolution in support of GoSolar’s goals.
Moreover, interviewees suggest that there are a variety of fora through which communities can exchange best practices and identify funding options. The City of Orlando is a forerunner in this regard and may inspire other cities to participate in, for instance, the Clean Energy for Low Income Communities Accelerator or strive to be certified by the U.S. Department of Energy as a ‘SolSmart’ city.
Sub-state policy coordination
There exists also a more institutionalized regional forum called the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact that brings together 108 municipalities and 4 counties with the goal to develop regional climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Interviewed county-officials point out that under the compact the signatories pledge to coordinate joint positions on state legislation on solar and the possibility of a renewable energy portfolio standard. The compact’s signatories, include Democrat and Republican administrations, and represent a third of Florida’s population – two attributes that may help build critical momentum in support of more favorable solar legislation across Florida. In terms of immediate, regional action, strategies are currently developed by Compact participants about reallocating QECBs among municipalities or harmonizing loan program rules, according to a county-official I spoke to.
Finally, interviewees note that large cities organized in the Compact may share experiences ahead of upcoming renegotiations with IOUs. The discussions could cover the possibilities of municipalizing utility assets, franchise agreements about utility infrastructure and better access to data. On all three fronts determined municipalities can act with a view to make solar PV more attractive.