Less Sunny Year in Gainesville

A few weeks ago the Gainesville City Commissioners voted (5-2) to suspend the Regional Utilities (GRU) feed-in tariff (FiT) solar program. Interestingly, the event received little attention outside the Gainesville area, despite being one of the most documented and discussed solar policy innovations in the U.S. just five years ago. Given the war on solar that’s currently being waged across the country, SACE thought the recent Gainesville action deserved a closer look.  

Gainesville’s FiT program was the first such program in the U.S. and has been extremely successful. Launched in 2009 through a unanimous City Commission vote, the FiT program was established with an initial goal (and cap) of installing 4 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) a year through 2016. Similar to models deployed in Europe, the Gainesville’s program offered 20-year tariffs for PV installations in three classes ranging from installations of less than 10 kilowatts (kW) capacity, up to 1,000 kW. The program over-filled with applications within days of its first opening, and despite tariff rate reductions in subsequent years, the interest never waned.

Gainesville now has about 16 MW attributed to its FiT program (not including about 2 MW in their net metering program), and has at least four times the number of solar companies in the city compared to 2008. Its success has brought accolades from national and international audiences, and has resulted in the Gainesville model being followed by other cities and states across the country.

Despite the local and national support for Gainesville’s solar leadership, the City Commission’s recent decision was not a huge surprise. It was discussed over the course of the year, and even the 2013 capacity was debated before being approved in late 2012. However, it’s hard to ignore how this fits into a larger trend of utilities, regulators, and/or legislators negatively targeting solar – particularly net metering programs – just as the adolescent solar industry begins to mature. Further, it comes on the heels of the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) move to lobby against net metering.

City Commissioner Todd Chase, an opponent to the FiT program, argued that it contributes to higher electric rates, supplies un-needed capacity, and that the city has already achieved its emission reduction goals at the end of 2012. He goes on to say, “We do not need this power. Our customers don’t need it. We don’t need it on the grid.” However, Chase fails to acknowledge: solar power is something the general public and business community want; and that we ultimately all need more of it order to reduce our risk exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices and, of course, climate change impacts.

SACE supports restructuring solar programs, particularly if it involves transparent analyses to determine the benefits and costs solar brings to the grid and society, but these should be done in parallel to continuing current programs, rather than disrupting the solar industry’s progress. We hope that during this less sunny year for Gainesville, the city recognizes the full benefits solar provides to their utility, city and citizens – both in the near and long-term – and that ultimately it continues to seek innovative ways to be a clean energy leader in a state that has been sorely under-achieving in terms of renewable energy.

Fortunately, net metering remains an option for Gainesville citizens and businesses to leverage solar investments while the FiT program is suspended. We are concerned that more attacks on net-metering are coming.  Gainesville has been a shining star in Florida and with the solar industry even with the lack of vision and leadership in Tallahassee on renewable energy policy. Ending this visionary program moves us in the wrong direction, weakening Florida’s claim on being the “Sunshine state”.

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