Developing Homegrown Energy; Cities Try to Plug into Renewable Source, but It's Not Easy and Not Cheap

By Bauerlein, David | The Florida Times Union, March 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Developing Homegrown Energy; Cities Try to Plug into Renewable Source, but It's Not Easy and Not Cheap


Bauerlein, David, The Florida Times Union


Byline: David Bauerlein

In Gainesville, construction is under way on a $500 million biomass plant that will produce one-fifth of the electricity consumed by Gainesville Regional Utilities customers by 2015.

To advocates of renewable energy, it's the kind of project that can make Florida the "Saudi Arabia of biomass" - a combination of using environmentally friendly energy (wood waste) that also generates jobs from a homegrown energy sector.

JEA has made some moves to plug into that new energy economy, but on a smaller scale. The Jacksonville-owned utility purchases electricity generated by a privately owned solar farm on the Westside and also buys electricity fueled by methane gas from decomposing garbage in the Trail Ridge landfill.

But less than 1 percent of JEA's electricity comes from those two renewable energy sources.

One reason is that renewable power costs more than conventional power. Another, the agency admits, is because the state doesn't mandate it. In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a 20 percent target by 2020 for energy such as solar, biomass and wind power. But the Legislature never acted on it, Crist left Tallahassee and the idea died.

"Right now there is no market in Florida because we don't have a policy," said James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida. "We decided not to have renewable energy portfolio standards like 35 other states [do]."

That's a reason Florida lags badly in its share of "green jobs," according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released this month.

FLORIDA'S SMALL IMPACT

Florida workers involved in "green goods and services" account for almost 96,000 jobs, or 1.3 percent of all jobs in the state. The categories cover a variety of areas such as alternative energy sectors at utilities, construction of energy-efficient buildings, the manufacture of products used for alternative energy, and research and development.

If the state were at the national average of 2.4 percent, there would be about 75,000 additional jobs in the field.

Northeast Florida has attracted new-energy companies such as the $200 million Saft battery plant that will employ about 400 in Jacksonville. This week, 2G Cenergy Power Systems announced it will open a St. Augustine plant employing 125 people.

Alternative Energy Technologies, located in Green Cove Springs, employs 65 people manufacturing components of solar hot water systems. The company sells to dealers nationwide and plans to add another 100 employees in 2014 after expanding its operation.

The company has had its ups and downs. After the federal government stopped giving tax credits for solar hot water systems in the 1980s, the industry collapsed, Executive Vice President Andrew East said. The business survived by tapping European markets until the U.S. brought back tax credits for solar. In the past five years, business is up by 400 percent, he said.

"We're not rocket scientists," East said. "We keep it simple. We do solar hot water and it's very cost-effective."

JEA has given rebates since 2002 to customers who install solar hot water systems and reduce their electric use. Currently, JEA offers an $800 rebate, and customers can get an additional $1,000 rebate from a one-time use of federal money awarded to the city.

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