How Can We Wake “Sleeping Giant” of Solar in the Southeast?

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How is it that the Sunshine State is so far down on the list of solar states? Florida ranks #3 in terms of solar potential, yet it’s only #12 when it comes to cumulative solar capacity installed — and a mere #18 in solar electric capacity installed in 2013.

The short answer: policy.

It’s no news by now that policy trumps sunshine as a solar resource. Every look at solar in the U.S. bears that out, including the latest Lighting the Way report on the top 10 states, and the SEIA/GTM Solar Market Insight report on 2013.

That’s all too clear in the Southeast. It’s frustrating to residents of Florida and other southeastern states that it’s easier to go solar in places like Massachusetts. An image in an article the LA Times ran this weekend provides a good illustration of how solar power in the U.S. is for the most part concentrated in both the Southwest and — oddly — the Northeast.

The article notes, “Florida is one of several states, mostly in the Southeast, that combine copious sunshine with extensive rules designed to block its use by homeowners to generate power.” And it delves into what’s behind the policy issues: “opposition from utilities grown nervous by the rapid encroachment of solar firms on their business.”

Again, that’s no news. For anyone not up on the battle over solar, the article provides good background. The battle has been going on at least since the Edison Electric Institute put out a study early last year, warning of the challenges from distributed generation to the current utility business model. That’s gotten utilities worried.

Some signs of hope? For starters, utilities and their allies have mostly failed in their attempts to set back net metering. Not all utilities are fighting distributed solar, notably companies like NRG Energy and Green Mountain Power. And recently, there have even been glimmers of a chance for agreements between utilities and solar advocates. While all this doesn’t by itself fix the situation in the Southeast, it could help.

And there’s been a bit of movement specific to that part of the country. In South Carolina, one of the southeastern states without much solar, the governor just signed a new bill that should encourage solar. The bill requires large utilities to get 2% of their average peak power demand from solar by 2020, increases the net metering cap from 100 kW to 1 MW, and allows solar leasing. Several other states in the area still don’t allow solar leasing, which has been credited with a huge increase in solar adoption in the states that do have it.

Meanwhile, in Florida, the people are speaking up for solar. A survey conducted earlier this year found that about three out of four voters there support the current net metering policy, while roughly the same percentage reject utilities’ proposal to impose a fee for solar customers. A more recent poll found that nearly eight out of ten people in the state want to limit carbon pollution from power plants. The issue is getting more attention there.

With solar getting cheaper and becoming more — dare we say it — mainstream, it’s time for a shift in one of the sunnier parts of the country. It’s time for the Southeast to go solar.