by Ted Manna
Cocoa Beach, Fla.
August 25, 2011
THE SOLAR STATE
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 25, 2011 -- Here on a sun-splashed, gentle curve of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida's Manatee County - a ground-breaker in implementing the state's Sunshine Act for information openness - this week joined a growing list of cities and counties in harnessing real sunshine by agreeing to install solar panels on more than a dozen major facilities, revving up the local economy with jobs and easily saving its recession-stressed budgets millions of dollars in future energy costs.
Soon, Floridians might be calling it the Solar State.
Tuesday, Manatee County commissioners approved an agreement to install 26 solar panel systems at 17 county facilities, including the DeSoto Center complex and its dockside Central Library. That should result in up to $100,000 in energy savings each year - minus the intitial $104,000 in start-up engineering and other costs of about $4,000 per system, according to county spokesman Nick Azzara.
"This will save us $400,000 over the next five years," Commissioner Joe McClash said as the county's governing board unanimously adopted the plan. The county, on Florida's southern Gulf Coast about an hour south of Tampa, has seen property values drop by $12 billion due to the subprime housing crisis over the past six years, so the savings are especially significant here.
Astoundingly, the costly photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight to power, the installation labor, electrical hook-ups and electricity is free. And if the kilowatt hours (Kwh) produced are more than what's used by local government, Manatee County and other users may even make money by selling electricity back to an electric company, a program called net-metering.
"Today's action was the latest in a series of energy-saving measures the county, a certified Green Government, has taken in recent years. The most high-profile of these initiatives was the retrofit of energy efficiency and lighting systems at the county's four largest facilities, resulting in an annual taxpayer savings of $479,309 - a 24 percent savings in the county's electrical costs at those buildings," Azzara declared.
"Earlier this year crews completed a new energy-efficient "chiller" connected to the Manatee County Historic Courthouse that is expected to save Manatee taxpayers an estimated $138,000 a year in energy and maintenance costs," he said in a celebratory press release.
Manatee County is by no means alone among the state's counties and cities in trying to weather the huge decline in home values, and hence property taxes, by looking for savings with solar energy. While the amortization of solar costs can be slow for a homeowner or on a single swimming pool, counties can start saving quickly because of the low start-up costs and big facilities. And nothing could be more appropriate, perhaps, than doing so here in the Sunshine State.
Last week, two Brevard County towns, Rockledge and Satellite Beach, approved similar agreements, with Cocoa Village and Cocoa Beach slated to follow, all expecting to save just as much.
Datacomm Services, LLC (DCS), a Connecticut-based energy consulting company, will install the equipment at no charge and loan them to the jurisdictions for five years, after which the company will sell the systems to the municipalities for $1.00 each.
Manatee County and the other governments will have to pay for engineering, permitting and net metering costs, but considering the equipment will convert sunlight to electricity for the next 25 years - and the fact that electric costs historically have never decreased - it looks like a win-win deal for the cities and counties involved.
The projects not only save taxpayers' money but also create jobs in-state and nationwide. Each uses local installation crews, electricians and salesmen, and utilizes all American-made components, from the silicon wafer photovoltaic modules made in California and Texas to the Square-D electrical products, refuting claims by Republican Presidential hopefuls and network pundits that the renewable energy stimulus doesn't work.
"This has been really crazy," panted Keith Hoffman of Bonita Springs, Fla., as he clambered off a Cocoa Beach Fire Department roof Thursday, trying to beat the dangerous winds and rain from Hurricane Irene. Hoffman, sales representative for Allied Global Energy, Inc. (AEG), the marketing arm for DCS, was a general contractor and home inspector before being hired by AEG about 18 months ago.
"My business was down before this job with home-building off and people not buying homes after the mortgage meltdown," admitted Hoffman. "This job has pulled me out financially.
"This is really taking off. Everybody wants in now, especially in the last two weeks. And I love the work. It's going green, it's eco-friendly, it's saving the planet, one roof at a time. It's putting the government's investment toward saving money."
According to Ken Laznovsky, AEG's Coral Gable, Fla.,- based owner, the company expects to have more than 250 approved contracts with municipalities, non-profits and other entities by year's end, with $12 million in 100 signed contracts already approved. "I don't even know really how many we have in Florida right now, we're so busy," he quipped.
"I started with one electrician," Laznovsky mused. "Now I have 12 sales reps across the state, 10 electricians and more being added daily, and that's not even counting the installers we're adding. And we're all doing well, making good commissions. These are good jobs, not minimum wage."
But how can all this happen when the company provides a plethora of services to their customers free? The answer lies in a little-known provision in the U. S. Treasury Department's 1603 American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act (ARRTA), extended under section 707 of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 for one year.
The 1603 program offers renewable energy product developers cash payments in lieu of tax credits, awards that are worth 30 percent of a project's total cost in most cases. Datacomm Services gets all credits, tax grants, and existing or future state rebates under their contracts with their customers.
While Florida's utility companies have some of the highest renewable energy rebates in the country, the funds are finite. For example, in the most recent round of rebates from Florida Power & Light, $5 million disappeared in a flood of requests in a matter of minutes.
Datacomm covers the other 70 percent of the cost of these projects through the sale of Residential Energy Certificates (REC) to investors, with third-party funding for the purchase provided by DCS.
RECs are a non-tangible energy commodity that represent proof that 1 megawatt/hour (1 mWh) was generated from an eligible renewable energy resource like sun or wind. They can be traded, bartered or sold on the commodities market. They represent the clean environmental attributes of the power produced, and are sold separately from the actual electricity.
RECs provide buyers (pollution-producing industries and utilities) the opportunity to support renewable energy where actual products are not available, as in places where the sun doesn't shine enough or the wind doesn't blow hard enough. Solar REC (SREC) spot-trade pricing depends on where the credits are generated. Pricing varied widely recently; in Delaware it was $255 per SREC, and $655 in New Jersey.
"The combination of these two money sources should make both Republicans and Democrats happy," declared Laznovsky. "Thirty percent from tax credits from the government, and 70 percent from the sale of SRECs to the private sector, should satisfy everybody," he said.
"Make no mistake, though," he added. "Without the stimulus money, there would be no hiring."
That stimulus money is not peanuts. As of February 25, 2011, ARRTA funded 7,180 projects worth $6.4 billion throughout the U. S., according to the latest update from the U.S. Treasury.
AR Correspondent Ted Manna writes extensively on technology, politics and the economy. Reach him for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.