By Kelsey Grentzer
GRU’s FIT program first in nation to encourage solar energy use among residents
The most Kevin Priest has spent on his electricity bill this year is $4 in one month. And that was only because it was a particularly cloudy month.
For the rest of the year, Priest’s energy bill has essentially been paid for by the sun.
The 30-year-old graduate student is a participant in Gainesville Regional Utilities’ solar photovoltaic feed-in tariff (FIT) program, an energy initiative that encourages solar energy use in Gainesville by paying participants for the energy produced by their solar panels.
“Every month I get a check from GRU, and every month they send me a bill for the energy that I’m using,” Priest said. Usually, he receives more than he pays.
Participants in the Solar FIT program sign a contract to sell the energy produced by their solar energy systems back to GRU, at a fixed rate, for 20 years.
In the eyes of Mark Robinson, another participant in the program, the situation is a win-win. Robinson will earn more than 13 percent a year in profit through the program.
“The system should pay for itself in about eight years,” Robinson said. “Everything produced after that is profit. The panels have a 30-year warranty, so one can expect 20 plus years of prepaid clean energy.”
Bill Shepherd, GRU’s energy and business services manager, anticipates that the program will have almost 11.3 megawatts’ worth of solar energy installed by the end of the year and 32 megawatts’ worth by the end of the program’s duration in 2016.
“That is equivalent to about just under 2,000 homes effectively being powered by renewable energy annually,” Shepherd said. “By the end of this year we’ll be reducing 16,400 tons of carbon annually from those systems generating electricity.” That number is based on how much carbon would have been produced had that electricity been made using fossil fuels.
For many, the deciding factor about whether to apply for the program comes from an economic standpoint. Although participants must pay for the initial installation of the solar panels, GRU strives to provide solar energy users in the program with a 4 to 5 percent rate of return, Shepherd said.
However, it’s not always just the economic incentive that leads Gainesville residents to apply for the program.
“I think it’s a very clean and efficient way to do things,” Robinson said. “Economically it makes sense, and environmentally I think it’s the right thing to do.”
The program has drawn steady interest in the Gainesville community since its initial opening in 2009, but it has its limits.
GRU allocates 4 megawatts per year for the program, an amount determined by funds provided through a $1 addition to monthly GRU utility bills to help cover the program’s costs. Some of this year’s capacity was already taken up by a queue that was implemented before the year even started.
When GRU began accepting new applications in January, there were 2.7 megawatts available for new FIT users, Shepherd said. But GRU received 9 megawatts’ worth of applications.
Unfortunately for those eager to apply, GRU does not currently have the capacity to reopen the application process in January as previously expected, Shepherd said.
Despite its popularity, some Gainesville residents argue that the program could be managed better.
Due to allegations that GRU did not execute the 2011 application process fairly, GRU opened an additional megawatt for applicants who were not selected this year. This utilized all of the open capacity that GRU had planned to offer to new applicants in 2012.
One applicant, Annie Orlando, filed a lawsuit on Nov. 22 claiming that GRU had given an unfair advantage to select applicants while denying the same options for others.
According to a review of the application process conducted by the City Auditor’s Office, GRU granted an exception for one contractor, allowing the company to submit multiple applications through limited-liability corporations that were not registered until after the selection process.
Orlando said that when she asked GRU if she could submit more than one application, she was told that it would not be permitted. She expected that other applicants would be told the same.
“All I wanted was to be treated fairly,” she said. “I told GRU, ‘I don’t care what your rules are; I just want to play by the same ones.’”
The auditor’s report had suggested that GRU make an effort to further clarify its application regulations and to notify applicants of exceptions granted to other applicants.
Shepherd said that GRU regularly changes its processes to improve the program along the way.
Although still evolving, GRU’s Solar FIT program serves as an example for many utility companies across the nation. Inspired by similar efforts in Europe, it was the first of its kind in the United States.
She may not be happy with the management of the Solar FIT, but Orlando recognizes the significance of the program’s presence in Gainesville.
“This is a very important program,” she said. “The whole country has their eyes watching us, and it’s a shame that it’s been hijacked by people who took advantage of the weaknesses in it.”