Clever Green

Florida is starved for electricity. Some eco-renegades are growing their own.

He clicked ahead. "They told me I spent too much time on that slide last time."

In the hallway during a break, a German named Mike ate a pastry from the vending machine. He didn't want to give his last name or address, because he has solar panels and a windmill going with no permit.

"I just take down the panels before a hurricane," he said with a shrug. "FPL can't figure out why my electric bill is so much less than my neighbors'."

rich lillash
rich lillash

Germany, he pointed out, is the third-largest producer of solar power in the world. "This country is twenty years behind," he said, grumbling about a state government he says is controlled by corporate interests. "It's this yuppie culture. People don't care as long as the power comes out of the outlet."

He might have a point. Although recently enacted state rebates and federal tax credits can cut the cost of a $20,000 solar system in half, only 83 Floridians have sought out the rebate since July 2006. Given the advantages of a few solar panels and a solar water heater in times like the aftermath of a hurricane, the number seems surprisingly low.

But most solar gurus in Florida tend to be like Mike the German and the Putneys of No Name Key -- technophiles who build most of their systems themselves. For the less handy, like Mike's yuppies, such expertise is hard to come by. When American Airlines pilot John Hammerstrom and his FIU professor wife, Diane Marshall, began building their three-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-story Key Largo "hybrid house" (currently on the market for $3.5 million, it gets 40 percent of its electricity from solar panels and was constructed from eco-friendly materials), they confronted an unusual challenge: the need to teach their tradesmen. The market for green homes is still small, and many contractors have not invested in the training required to install renewable energy technology -- even though in some cases it can be done in a day.

"We found ourselves constantly trying to talk people into doing things," remembered Hammerstrom. "With the plumber it was the solar water heater; with the electrician it was the solar panels; with the guy that does the floors it was the bamboo flooring." Some things, like getting insulating integrated concrete forms to keep the house cool, they had to give up on for lack of a trained installer.

After they finished building their house, Marshall spearheaded a local initiative to educate professionals and homeowners in the basics of outfitting a green home. The result was the Florida Keys Green Living and Energy Expo, an annual event that began in 2005. This year dozens of workshops featured topics like "Lighting for Less" and "Reduce Your Energy Bill." All-day workshops for tradesmen included "Photovoltaics for Building Pros," taught by Messenger, who says he is busier installing solar systems in retirement than he ever was teaching.

Some also see a lack of support for green building from utility companies like FPL. By law, residents in FPL's service area can connect to its grid and sell their excess solar power back to the company. But while the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative pays retail for power its users send back to the grid, FPL pays only wholesale.

"Florida Keys Electric Cooperative is owned by its ratepayers," said Hammerstrom. "FPL really has not encouraged people; it's investor-owned, so it has much more responsibility to produce profits. If you earn your revenue from utility rates, by the nature of the structure you're not going to be as motivated to conserve."

And although individual users say the sun is constant enough that they get a fair amount of electricity even when the sun is not out, FPL consistently contends that the state has too many cloudy days for solar power to make sense here. "Usually by the third or fourth cloudy day I start saying to Alicia: Let's not run the washing machine,'" said Mick Putney. Until then, they're fine.

It's true that FPL isn't likely to push customers to cut back on the commodity it sells. In its last quarterly earnings report, in which the utility touted the addition of 98,000 new customers and a four-million-dollar rise in profits, FPL CEO Lew Hay also lamented that "usage growth, adjusted for weather, remained weak." While weak usage growth -- or even better, decline -- would be an environmental gain, in the zero-sum world of publicly held corporations, shareholders lose.

But it's always easier to blame a behemoth corporate entity like FPL for burning fossil fuels and producing nuclear waste, instead of ourselves, the consumers. As far as electric companies go, it might surprise some Floridians that FPL is one of the cleanest. Only five percent of the electricity it generates is derived from coal, compared to 52 percent nationwide. FPL's sister company, FPL Group, is the single largest producer of wind energy in the country, though none of that electricity reaches Floridians.

According to Messenger, part of the reason solar power is supported by power companies in states like Colorado is because those companies need to compensate for the amount of toxins their plants are spewing into the air. FPL does not need to make such concessions, given its relatively clean energy portfolio.

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