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What does it take to switch to solar? Your questions (and ours) answered


A recent report from a solar advocacy group says Florida continues to lead the southeast in producing solar energy.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is often at odds with Florida Power & Light, said the utility has done well expanding its own solar production. The region, however, still lags behind on rooftop solar. Only about 10% of solar comes from homes, while utilities such as FPL produce 90%.

For Florida, that amounts to about 90,000 households powered by rooftop solar panels, according to the Public Service Commission, or about 1% of all electric customers in the state.

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For some, making the move from your utility to solar isn't always easy because upfront costs can be steep. In Florida, it can cost up to $18,000 per house to get set up with solar panels.

You might be asking yourself, is the cost worth it? For Laura Tellez, the South Florida program coordinator for Solar United Neighbors, the answer is yes.

“It might seem that it is expensive, but when you think about how much [you’ll] be spending on electricity for the next 25 years, there's definitely a really great return," she told WLRN Sundial.

Solar United Neighbors, which helps facilitate finding solar installers at competitive prices, has already done 60 co-ops throughout the state.

They're not the only ones interested in making the investment. Some South Florida high school students recently installed a big solar array — 305 solar panels, to be exact — on their school's gymnasium roof. And last month, FPL, the state's largest utility provider announced plans to eliminate its carbon emissions by 2045 by halting fossil fuel usage and greatly increasing its reliance on solar energy. Back in 2019, FPL said it wanted to install 30 million panels across the state by 2030 — intentions that were not represented in the company's recent push to slow down rooftop solar's growth.

To better understand solar — solar energy, solar panels and solar installation — and the state of solar in Florida, WLRN Sundial has been hosting a series of conversations about the subject.

For the first and second parts of the series, Sundial spoke with Laura Tellez from Solar United Neighbors and Alex Harris, the climate change reporter for the Miami Herald.

Here are some of Tellez and Harris' answers to some of your questions, and some of ours, about solar power. (Note: These interviews were separate, but for the purpose of this series, we're combining them in one place.)

A listener named Marika Lynch in Miami told us, "Honestly, I don't know where to start. I'm afraid of being fleeced, but I'd love to do this."

So, we'll begin there. The biggest challenge is taking the first step of doing a little bit of research [and] understanding a little bit more, Tellez said. "It's a lot easier than people realize."

On the cost

In Florida, the average sized solar panel system in South Florida is about eight kilowatts. And the going rate for solar co-op pricing is about $2.25 per watt. At that rate, it'll cost about $18,000 for an entire system that comes with a 25-year warranty.

Solar co-operatives, like Solar United Neighbors, bind interested neighbors in a kind of support group to bulk purchase solar panels. The groups, which are free to join, can help homeowners get the right solar equipment, quality installation and discounts on solar energy systems. A federal tax credit is available, but only if you purchase the panels.More on the tax credit here. Next year, the tax credit will drop to 22%.

Another detail worth mentioning, according to Tellez, there's no sales tax on the purchase of a solar system. This means that the panels can increase the property value of your home, but you aren't taxed on that improvement.

On managing expectations

Sometimes in order to get the best amount of energy and to have the most efficient solar panel array — how it's laid out on your roof — you have to make some adjustment to your yard, like cutting down trees. And that, Harris said, can be a dealbreaker.

If you have big, old mature oak trees that shade your windows and bring your power bills down, it can be de devastating to see them go.

"I think folks sometimes are sad to the idea that they might have to leave the tree that they've grown up with for years or decades just so they can have the most optimal solar array," Harris said.

Now, if you decide, "I really want to keep that tree, I want to move the panels somewhere else on my roof," it's doable, but you may not get the amount of power you were promised.

Another factor: Your roof. It has to be in pretty good condition. Experts suggest replacing roofs that are older than 20 years before installing solar panels.

About the process, Harris continued: "I think people sometimes think it's easier than it is. There's a couple more considerations that maybe they think about when they look at their neighbors' roofs and see a bunch of beautiful shiny solar panels on it."

On the actual product

The general consensus, according to Harris' reporting: People are happy. Everything, she said, has sort of lived up to the promises heard when people made the decision to go solar. Power bills are lower. "They have more confidence knowing their energy comes from a cleaner source," she said. "And sometimes they can even sell that power back to the grid, and it lowers the costs of getting money back for their solar installation."

That process of selling back electricity to the utility company is called net metering. It lets homeowners earn credit for excess solar electricity generated and fed back into the grid. Currently, the rates are set for Florida Power and Light to buy the energy from you at the same rate that they buy from any other utility. It's called the market rate and it's great for homeowners, Harris said, because it means that you can make money back and pay off your solar panels faster.

On why isn't solar ... everywhere?

The state of Florida has preempted towns and cities' ability to come up with their own own plans to fight climate change and to do their part in a global effort to reduce carbon emissions. And unfortunately, Harris said, these laws have had the effect of encouraging people to hold on to fossil fuels, like natural gas.

But there are a few big companies, like Walmart, she said, who "are a source of better ethical decisions and going with what their consumers want."

Hear more with Tallahassee Takeover podcast episode, Net zero with zero plans: Florida’s limits on limiting gas emissions

You've heard it before: One of the most important things we can do to slow down the worst impacts of climate change is to stop releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Miami-Dade County had a plan to do that — to slash their emissions in half by 2030.

But it's tough to do that in the county, Harris said, because "we're at the mercy of a monopoly utility that hasn't really made that full commitment to cutting its emissions at the same speed."

And, also, because of the airport. Air travel at Miami International Airport makes up a quarter of all emissions in Miami-Dade County. And the technology for a renewable energy or low-energy fuel for airplanes doesn't exist just yet.

And finally, Harris said, it's against FPL's business model to have a lot more rooftop solar and they try to stand in front of it, with bills in Tallahassee, with minimum rate bills — all sorts of little small things to sort of make that less affordable.

WLRN's Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.

A previous version of the story said tax credits are available for panels purchased outright. Credits are also available when the panels are financed.

Katie Lepri Cohen is WLRN's engagement editor. Her work involves distributing and amplifying WLRN's journalism on social media, managing WLRN's social accounts, writing and editing newsletters, and leading audience-listening efforts. Reach out via email at klcohen@wlrnnews.org.
Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
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