Federally funded solar energy project falls short of projected savings

Local project saves less than half of goal

TAMPA - The state's largest municipal solar energy project at the old Hillsborough County Courthouse promised savings of 40 percent, when the project was unveiled four years ago.

But the I-Team discovered that taxpayers footed a large bill for savings that didn't even come close to predictions.

The unveiling of the million dollar solar project drew applause from city leaders four years ago.

 Three hundred solar panels were fastened to the roof of the old Hillsborough County Courthouse.

 Officials at the time predicted huge energy savings.

 “$60,000 a year savings in electricity from this,” predicted Hillsborough County Energy Director Randy Klindworth back in 2010.

 But the I-Team has obtained power bills showing the actual savings are less than half that amount.

 While Klindworth hoped to get energy savings of about 40 percent, the reality is that the savings have only averaged 15 to 18 percent.

 Klindworth said he would not have invested county money for the project, because it takes too long to pay for itself.

 “I've got to be careful how the county spends taxpayer money,” Klindworth said. “I want to be very wise in how we do that. Make sure we get the good return on investment.”

 But the $1Million funding for the project came from Uncle Sam.

 It was one of almost 10,000 solar projects funded as part of the controversial federal economic stimulus program.

 At its current rate, the courthouse system would take 38 years to pay for itself in today's dollars, even though it's predicted maximum lifespan is only 20 years.

 “They're off by a factor or two and because it's the government, they get away with it,” said James Taylor, a Senior Fellow of the conservative Heartland Institute.

 “We're paying approximately $1 Million for solar panels that, at most, are going to save half of that over their lifespan.  Actually more like a third. Essentially, what we're doing is doubling or tripling our energy costs for this building,” said Taylor.

 So why were predicted solar savings so far off?

 Sometimes, it's not sunny…even in the sunshine state.

 “These rosy predictions for solar power energy savings, they assume that it's going to be perfectly sunny every day, all day,” said Taylor.

 “During the winter's less, because the angle of the sun is lower,” said Klindworth.

 The federal program was intended to create jobs in addition to saving energy.

 Records show the project put about a dozen people to work for three months.

 As for whether Hillsborough County will ever fund its own solar projects in the future, that remains to be seen.

 “We're getting better, but what we have to do is get the price down. We've got to get it more cost efficient,” said Klindworth.

 While the courthouse solar project isn't making its energy savings goal, the Hillsborough County is a national leader when it comes to saving money on energy costs.

 By making simple changes to things like lighting and air-conditioning systems, the county is saving an estimated $3.5 Million dollars a year.

 

The U.S. Department of Energy also points out that the system has offset more than 1.6 Million pounds of carbon dioxide since it was installed, accomplishing the goal of helping protect the environment.

 The federal government invested about $3.6 Billion in energy-related stimulus projects.

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