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Future of state's solar industry looks bright after DeSantis' veto, advocates say

Co-op launches Thursday to help more in Hillsborough County go solar
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Posted at 7:40 AM, Apr 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-28 08:17:41-04

TAMPA, Fla. — If you’re short on time, don’t ask Eric Hovland about his passion. Sharks. The marine biologist, who’s a curator at The Florida Aquarium, is nicknamed “The Shark Guy.”

But, spend a few minutes with him at his home in South Tampa, and “The Solar Guy” would be just as fitting a nickname for Hovland. He glows like the sun while bragging about the 23 solar panels that now sit atop his roof.

“It just makes sense,” he said. “I drive a Mustang. It’s for everybody. You don’t have to be totally green. It’s a great way to start to moderate and save some money. It’s just practical.”

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Hovland joined a Hillsborough County Solar Co-op in 2019. The cooperative, supported by the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, helped convince Hovland to take the plunge. At first, he was a little skeptical. Then, his bills started to change in early 2020.

“For years now, I’m just watching my bills just drop, drop, drop,” he said, showing off a series of electric bills saved on his phone — from sunnier summer months in the past few years — that dipped to roughly $18 each. “I’m cranking out power, and I’m sharing it with the community and building equity in my home. It’s just win-win-win-win.”

Hovland admits the initial investment can be big and can seem intimidating. He opted for a new roof, the 23 solar panels, and a battery bank in his garage to store power for a price tag of roughly $30,000. However, he said the co-op helped him navigate financing options and land several significant discounts, incentives, and subsidies.

One incentive he uses, to this day, is known as net metering. Through net metering, solar customers are able to sell excess energy — collected by solar panels — back to their utilities.

“I’m literally sharing the wealth of the sun with those around me,” he said. “I get a small credit for that, essentially, to help with my bills — you know, the power I consume overnight, the power I consume in the winter during shorter days, cloudy days, et cetera.”

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However, a bill Florida lawmakers passed in March would have eventually phased out that incentive for many future and current solar customers. Critics described it as a potential “solar killer” in a state where solar is trying to gain a foothold.

“I cannot see a positive to it, and I’m a pretty glass-half-full, sunshine, positive guy,” Hovland said in an interview Wednesday morning.

Hours later, his tone was celebratory, because Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed the bill Wednesday afternoon.

“Given that the United States is experiencing its worst inflation in 40 years and that consumers have seen steep increases in the price of gas and groceries, as well as escalating bills, the state of Florida should not contribute to the financial crunch that our citizens are experiencing,” DeSantis wrote in his veto letter.

“I think it’s a real win,” Hovland said in response. “I can genuinely say thank you. This is good for all of us, regardless of your politics.”

Now, with the bill to end net metering seemingly dead, Hovland is ready to sell more of his family members and friends on the idea of going solar.

“Trust and verify,” he reminded. “Don’t take my word for it.”

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Thursday, the group that helped Hovland go solar — Solar United Neighbors — will launch its 2022 co-op for Hillsborough County residents, small businesses, and nonprofits.

Funded by Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa, the co-op will start taking membership applications on Apr. 28. The window to apply closes on July 31.

“Whether you’re just curious about solar, or you’re ready to make the switch now, I’m here to help,” writes program coordinator Julia Herbst on the nonprofit’s website. “I can answer any questions you have about solar. I’ll give you installer-neutral guidance to help you make an informed, confident decision about going solar.”

According to the nonprofit, the co-op model allows those interested in solar to join together and “leverage bulk-purchasing power to get discounted pricing and a quality installation.”

Hovland says that describes his experience with the co-op, which he joined in 2019.

“You are getting into a cooperative — a co-op with people in your neighborhood,” he said. “Basically, I got an opportunity to help select that solar company from a long, well-vetted list down to one company, and because they are getting up to a hundred people in this co-op involved, you gain the savings.”

Read more about the co-op at this link.

When it comes to total solar energy produced, Florida lags behind California and Texas. And, despite abundant year-round sunshine, less than 1% of homes in Florida have rooftop solar. Despite that percentage, data shows the industry is growing exponentially.