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New Solar Farm Draws Criticism, Support

A series of solar panels outlined against a bright blue sky, with clouds. The sun shines down on the solar panels in this solar farm.

The City of Tallahassee’s first solar farm was connected to the energy grid on January 1. State officials and consumers expressed excitement about the development, but not everyone is happy about the solar program.

Two thousand customers quickly signed up for the City of Tallahassee’s solar subscription program when it opened last June. Now a waitlist has already started in anticipation of the project’s second phase. The program’s popularity, though, has at least one critic. Matthew Chentnik is an engineer at Independent Green Technologies, a local solar energy equipment supplier. In an open letter to City of Tallahassee Commissioners, Chentnik complained that the solar project was harmful for local businesses.

“We’ve had a lot of customers who were ready to buy solar decide, 'well I’m just going to sign up for the City solar program because that’s easier and that way I’m doing my part.' So that is directly affecting our business and taking potential customers who believe in solar and renewable energy away from local companies such as ours," he said. 

Chentnik’s argument seems to run counter to at least one subscriber’s situation. Steve Urse is the Chair of Sustainable Tallahassee, and a longtime proponent of renewable energy. He worked in the solar business for many years, and would’ve liked to have panels on his own home, but, as he said, “I live in Waverly, my house is totally covered and surrounded by trees, so I have absolutely no solar window. There are even many plants that I can’t grow because I have so much shade.”

Urse’s circumstances are not unusual: One of proponents’ arguments for the solar program is that it allows for greater community participation. People who don’t own their own homes, whose yards are shaded by trees, or who wouldn’t be able to afford their own panels can still use solar energy through the city’s program. Chentnik, however, argues subscribers are paying for solar energy they’re not exactly getting.

“There is no way the city can send solar only generated power to someone’s house without running a line directly to every single subscriber," he said. 

For that reason, he thinks the subscription program is misleading to consumers. In his opinion, subscribers have been tricked into paying more for the same electricity everyone else on the grid receives.

Steve Urse at least seems confident in his understanding of the program. “Well you’re right, the energy is just fed into the grid, so it’s not exactly solar electricity that’s specifically coming to our homes," he said. "But we’re supporting solar and our message to the city is, don’t stop with the solar farm at the airport, but build others around the City.” 

Besides showing support for the city’s sustainability efforts, Urse said the City's program makes long-term economic sense for subscribers. “There’s one part of your electric bill that is a fuel charge, and it’s the fuel that’s burned at the natural gas generators," he explained. "Currently, that’s 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour. When you sign up for solar, you substitute a solar charge for that at 5 cents a kilowatt hour. So you’re paying a penny and a half more now, but you get to sign up for twenty years," he said, referencing the fixed solar price. "Natural gas prices have been volatile in the past and they’re expected to be volatile in the future, so for people who like hedges against inflation, signing up for a guaranteed 5 cents is a good thing.” 

That still leaves a concern: Were local businesses shut out of the City’s solar farm project? Chentnik argues yes. He says that no local talent was used for more than initial site prep work. Interim Tallahassee City Manager Reese Goad says the City Commission encouraged Origis Energy, which has headquarters in Miami, to work with local companies.

“We worked with Origis Energy to make sure we had as much local input as we could and we did," Goad said. "I was quite pleased actually with the level of local participation. They weren’t under contract to do it, they had no obligation to do it, but they did, and I thought that was in the spirit of what the city commissioners asked for.”

Independent Green Technologies and other businesses may not have been among those local firms that worked on the city’s solar farm, but, as Urse says, the farm only provides two percent of the city’s energy needs. That leaves a lot of room for renewables.

“There have been a lot of citizens advocating that both the city and the county adopt a 100 percent renewable energy goal," Urse commented. "For us to reach that goal, it’s gonna require not only large scale solar, but it’s gonna require people, businesses to step up and get solar too.”

Urse says that’s why Sustainable Tallahassee and other local partners have supported another solar initiative: the Leon County Solar Co-Op program. Heaven Campbell is a Program Associate with Florida Solar United Neighbors, the non-profit behind the proposed co-op. She said Solar United Neighbors helps community members learn more about solar energy and buy in together so they can get better rates on equipment. And, in what may be good news for business leaders like Chentnik, Campbell said locality is often important to co-op participants when they choose who to buy from. 

Steve Urse and Sustainable Florida’s support for the co-op seems to indicate that the city’s subscription program and home owned solar panels are not mutually exclusive strategies to create a more sustainable community. Reese Goad and other local officials who support the initiatives say the point is to encourage all forms of solar.