Utilities ready to buy back power

Fly fisherman Fitz Coker, who lives in his home on Von Phister Street in Key West during the summer, last fall became the first customer to sell power back to Keys Energy.

Coker is not powering the Keys, but his 3.5 kilowatt solar array could reduce his energy bills by two-thirds, say the engineers at Salt Sea Air Land Technologies who installed the panels.

Many of the people who have approached the utility inquiring about installing solar panels have balked at costs of installation, which can run upward of $40,000, and insurance, says Julio Barroso, Keys Energy spokesman.

But Coker’s type of unit costs less because it does not have an array of batteries that could power his home during an outage. The state also offers incentives to homeowners who install panels, though incentives for businesses are much higher.

Barroso says the company hopes more customers opt to install the panels, but they cannot offer financial support to those who do.

In response to the Coker’s successful setup, the company began offering a net-metering program to assist customers looking to reduce their bills through alternative energy production. Any power generated and sent back to Keys Energy is subtracted from the customer’s bills.

The company has learned from Coker’s experience, Barroso says, and should be able to pass that knowledge on to customers willing to wait to see a return from their own panels.

“We would definitely promote it as available to customers, but they’ll have to do on their own,” he says. “Hopefully other customers that are in a position to do something similar will see that someone has paved the way for them.”

Coker’s situation could make for a quicker return on his investment, since he only lives in his home during part of the year.

“Six months out of the year he’ll have a power plant in the Keys earning him credit,” says Bob Williams, founder of Salt Sea Air Land Technologies. Combined with not having batteries installed, “the pay back is much quicker.”

But Williams says a battery backup can be installed in the future, and customers accustomed to dims, flashes and outages of power could enjoy an uninterrupted power supply with such a system.

“The beauty of a battery bank is that the inverter system would take over or augment the power,” he says. “That to me is the ultimate system.”

And, despite its reputation, Williams sees beauty in Coker’s black rooftop panels.

“It’s a nice looking array on a metal roof with vegetation in the background,” he says. “Most people think of panels as ugly, so I thought this was really good looking.”

Florida, a state known for its sunshine, is actually only above average in terms of direct shine. Solar panel experts from the University of Central Florida say the desert South West receives significantly more sun, and have better results with solar power collection. Southern Florida is the best area for solar east of the Mississippi river, and is on par with central Nebraska or western Arkansas.

“The desert southwest has the largest solar resource in the continental U.S., but Florida is not very far behind,” according to a UCF report. “Consumers should note that many parts of the country that have more state financial incentives have a much poorer solar resource, making Florida a very cost-effective location for using solar energy.”

Keys Energy is also installing a two-acre array of solar panels in Big Pine, where the utility now houses a backup diesel power plant, Barroso says. The new plant will produce one megawatt of power each day if constructed, and help the Florida Municipal Power Agency meet state standards for renewable energy.

But the company knows the 2 acres are far from a solution: Keys Energy customers use between 135 and 145 megawatts of power each day. But Barroso says the plant would help put a dent in the larger power agency’s goal of increasing renewable energy sources.

“It’s probably not much,” he said. “But when you combine it with others across the state, together we have a big voice.”