As he gears up to run against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist is making an issue of renewable energy.
On the Nov. 18, 2013, edition of MSNBC’s The Ed Show, Crist touted alternative energy as a way to attract new industries and new jobs to Florida.
"We’re the Sunshine State, and we’re hardly doing any solar energy production," Crist told host Ed Schultz. "We should be the global leader in solar energy."
Crist later told PolitiFact that Florida Power & Light has a "pretty significant solar field," but added that "we can be doing so much more, in my humble opinion. ... My understanding is that many other states encourage the use of solar energy much more than Florida" does.
After looking at Crist’s claim, we concluded that he has a valid point.
One key way to look at the question is to measure installed solar capacity -- that is, the electricity-generating potential of installed solar equipment, including everything from a few solar panels on top of a home to an array of thousands of solar panels in the desert.
As of June 2013, California leads the nation with 3,761 megawatts of installed solar capacity. Arizona comes in second with 1,250 megawatts. New Jersey, which isn’t exactly known for its sunny skies but where roof-mounted units have proven popular, ranks third with 1,119 megawatts.
Florida, by contrast, has 202 megawatts, making it No. 10 in the nation. This might sound pretty good, but it’s well below the state’s potential. Florida actually ranks third in the country for solar potential. Yet its installed capacity trails such smaller and less-sunny states as North Carolina, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Pennsylvania.
"Relatively speaking, Florida is doing little to no solar," said Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida.
Another measurement is what goals a state is setting.
Twenty-nine states, plus Washington, D.C., and two territories, have a renewable portfolio standard policy -- utilities risk being fined if they don’t fulfill a certain percentage of a state’s energy needs through renewables such as solar or wind. Another eight states and two territories have less formal renewable energy goals.
Another 13 states have neither -- and Florida is one of them.
As it happens, when Crist was governor, he directed the Florida Public Service Commission to develop a state renewable portfolio standard policy, with a goal of 20 percent renewable energy production by 2020. The PSC did approve a draft of the plan in 2009, and it was submitted to the Florida Legislature for consideration. But the Legislature didn’t approve it, so it never went into effect.
There's another hurdle. Under Florida law, only a few utilities -- Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric -- can sell power directly to consumers. If a solar power generator wants to get into the state market, it must first sell to one of those utilities at cheaper wholesale rate. This undercuts the economic incentives to invest in solar, especially given the prevailing price of power in the state.
"Electricity rates have been relatively low in Florida so that’s the main reason why we haven’t done much here," Fenton said, adding that the cost of solar energy systems has dropped by 40-50 percent since 2009. "Alternative energy will always be an alternative until it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper in New Jersey. It’s not cheaper in Florida -- yet."
In fact, to the extent that Florida has put solar capacity into use, most of it occurred when Crist was governor.
In 2008, during Crist’s tenure, the state Legislature passed a renewable energy law that allowed utilities to build solar or wind projects generating up to 110 megawatts of energy without going through the normal regulatory review process. Florida Power & Light secured the entire amount, used in three installations. The FPL plants now account for more than half the state’s solar output.
FPL spokesman Erik Hofmeyer said solar power is part of the utility’s overall energy mix and the utility "is looking at more solar opportunities."
Still, considering the amount and intensity of sunlight hitting the ground in Florida, the amount of energy being produced is relatively small.
"Florida is in the dark ages, and we lag behind many, many other states that have goals and incentives and other policy mechanisms to promote and advance clean, renewable solar energy," said Wayne Wallace, president of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association.
Crist said that Florida is the "Sunshine State, and we’re hardly doing any solar energy production."
On the one hand, Florida ranks in the top 10 states nationally for installed solar energy capacity. On the other hand, given how much sun Florida gets, it is something of an underperformer nationally, and its policies -- a lack of a renewable portfolio standard and the existence of strict laws governing electricity sales -- pose challenges to future development of the state’s solar resources. We rate Crist’s claim Mostly True.