Solar feed-in tariff means feast or famine for solar contractors

There's a rush when applications come in, followed by a dearth when the work is done


Solar Impact
Solar Impact

Barry and Elaine Jacobson with Solar Impact stand outside a northwest Gainesville home with solar panels on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2010.

Matt Stamey/Staff Photographer
Published: Friday, January 14, 2011 at 6:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 12:16 a.m.

Gainesville contractor Solar Impact has likely benefited most from Gainesville's solar feed-in tariff, and another round of applications that opens next week should keep the installers busy for several more months.

Facts

Applications taken next week

GRU is taking applications Jan. 18-21 for solar feed-in tariff projects of up to 300 kW each for 2.7 MW total. Of that, 200 kW is reserved for single-family home systems of 10 kW or less.

Barry and Elaine Jacobson opened the business in 2007. At the time, there was one solar contractor in town. Barry, an engineer with solar experience, and Elaine, an economist, thought there had to be a better way after finding out a typical home system cost $50,000 to produce $1,000 worth of power a year.

They first oversaw their own home installation and then handled installations for family and friends.

"It was a weekend project that got out of hand," Barry said.

The growing business got a boost with the start of the feed-in tariff in 2009.

According to Gainesville Regional Utilities, Solar Impact was the contractor on 26 of the first 45 completed installations, most of them in Stoneridge Apartments, where each building counts as one project.

When GRU opened another round in October to give contractors work through the end of the year, Solar Impact got 25 of 49 contracts. As a result, the company is able to employ five people and has paid $1.5 million to subcontractors in dire need of work.

Although the program has created more solar work, it has not been enough to sustain all the solar contractors who came here at the outset.

A handful of solar contractors now operate in Gainesville. A bunch, most from South Florida, opened local operations when the program began, Barry said, but many of them have since left.

It has also been a feast when new applications open up and a famine when those jobs are done. Another round is expected to open next year for reserved projects that drop out.

Owners of some of the major commercial installations have also brought in outside contractors, who often hire local subcontractors.

Barry said the fact that reservations are filled so quickly shows that GRU could pay lower rates for the electricity. System owners make 10-20 percent average annual returns for 20 years.

"Our goal is to make solar work with no incentive," he said.

The program guarantees that GRU will buy back power generated at a fixed rate for 20 years, with decreasing rates for each subsequent year that projects are completed, limiting new projects to 4 megawatts total per year.

This year, GRU is paying 32 cents per kilowatt hour for projects of 10 kWh or less, 29 cents for those over rooftop or pavement, and 24 cents for ground mount on those above 10 kWh.

The rates are subsidized through ratepayers' bills at a rate of about 25 cents per month per electric bill.

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