How One City Achieved a Solar Surge

Orgeon DOT/CC BY 2.0
Germany. Italy. Spain. Gainesville. Stumped?

These are among the worldwide leaders in solar power. That's right -- Gainesville, Florida, has surpassed the state of California, a solar giant, in solar installations per capita, with more than seven megawatts of new solar-power capacity added during the past three years. How did this medium-sized city of 125,000 in the middle of Florida do it?

Gainesville was one of the first cities in the U.S. to adopt a feed-in tariff, which pays owners of solar-power systems who feed energy back into the grid. Homeowners with solar panels receive 32 cents for each extra kilowatt-hour they generate -- a rate that is more economical for the utility than an upfront rebate program. And because feed-in tariffs offer long-term stability, solar projects are easier to finance.

Sierra Club member Dwight Adams has a five-kilowatt rooftop solar system of his own. A Gainesville resident for 50 years, he says the city's initiation into solar power happened decades ago, when a local professor convinced the builders of a nearby airport to incorporate renewable energy. But Gainesville's leadership in solar didn't really take off until five years ago, when the local electrical utility wanted to expand its use of coal.

"They wanted an additional 600 megawatts to meet projected demand, and they looked into a new coal facility to do it," recalls Dwight, an executive committee member with the Club's Suwannee-St. Johns Group . "Our community has a lot of activists who don't want to see all this coal being shipped in from West Virginia, where they're taking the tops off of entire mountains."

At the same time the utility was proposing a new coal plant, a county government energy commission was becoming intrigued by Germany's feed-in tariff program. A utility representative went to Germany to investigate and returned "very excited." Soon, Gainesville adopted its own feed-in tariff. "I don't recall any opposition to it," says Dwight.

Today, Gainesville's solar-power adoption rate outshines that of France, Japan, and the rest of the U.S. by a wide margin. By the end of the year, the city's solar capacity is expected to reach 1.5 million kilowatt-hours per month.

Unfortunately, Dwight says, other Florida communities have been slow to follow Gainesville's lead. The politics in Tallahassee still favor coal and nuclear. Nevertheless, Gainesville's example shows how easy it can be for cities that want to move away from coal power to begin transitioning to clean, local energy.

Tags: Clean Energy | Florida | Solar Energy | Solar Power

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