Reneging on solar-rebate promise will cloud Florida's credibility
The Florida Energy and Climate Commission is doing the right thing by using unspent federal stimulus money to help keep the state's promise of rebates to thousands of residents and business owners who invested in solar technology for energy needs. But the board's decision a few weeks ago - made with the approval of the U.S. Department of Energy - to allocate $13.8 million to individuals who had signed on to the state's solar program only covers part of the pending claims. Altogether, before the commission's action, the state owed more than 15,000 residents and businesses about $54 million in rebates. Now the program, which expired June 30 and has no money of its own, has about $40 million in rebates outstanding. Still, a promise is a promise. State officials and lawmakers - especially lawmakers, who had the gall to decline to fund the program the last two regular sessions despite their pledge of rebates - have a responsibility to uphold the state's end of the bargain.They must see to it that the rebates are paid as soon as practically possible. Reneging - even during these challenging financial times - would send a terrible message to residents and, especially, to companies considering moving to the Sunshine State. Lawmakers who killed the popular program should remember that when the Legislature created the initiative four years ago, it was hailed as a way to entice renewable energy industries to Florida. And by one estimate, more than 40,000 jobs could be created if only 3 percent of homes in the state were retrofitted. The Legislature is still interested in creating jobs, isn't it? And don't forget the impact that the death of the program will have on solar power businesses in Florida. The rebates were a big enticement. The people owed money participated in the state's Solar Energy Systems Incentives Program in good faith. They wanted to tap clean energy, help reduce pollution and gain a bit of energy independence by utilizing Florida's abundant sunlight - and take up the state's generous offer. In encouraging them to buy solar panels and other costly equipment, the state made this promise to homeowners: rebates of $4 per watt and up to $20,000 for photovoltaic systems; $100 for solar swimming pool heaters; and $500 for solar water heaters. The business sector was eligible for up to $100,000 for panels and $5,000 for water heaters. In addition, individuals and business owners shouldn't be penalized because state workers didn't regularly update a website that showed consumers how much money was available. Some residents reportedly checked the site to make sure money was available before installing systems, only to learn afterwards that the program was broke. This is the state's fault, not consumers'. Some solar power contractors acknowledge the rebates are high, but they point out that system prices have dropped since the inception of the program. Reducing some of the rebates, such as the $4-per-watt guarantee, some energy experts say, would have been a reasonable alternative to killing the program, which will hurt customers and contractors. Lawmakers have a right to decide if Florida should be a leader in solar power and whether rebates should continue to be part of the initiative. But they had no business killing a program without first providing enough money to pay the rebates that had been promised. They need to keep the state's word.