February 25, 2009

Interview of the Week: Solar America City/Orlando: The Sunshine State/The Solar State

Florida: white beaches, bone fishing, icy beverages with little umbrellas, Disneyworld, the Sunshine State. Maybe it’s becoming the Solar State. Last January, Orange County received a $1.8 million State of Florida grant for a solar electric (PV) system and education center at the Orange County Convention Center. The grant, awarded through the Florida Department of…

Florida: white beaches, bone fishing, icy beverages with little umbrellas, Disneyworld, the Sunshine State. Maybe it’s becoming the Solar State.

Last January, Orange County received a $1.8 million State of Florida grant for a solar electric (PV) system and education center at the Orange County Convention Center. The grant, awarded through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (FDEP) Renewable Energy Technologies 2007 Grant Program, was matched by a $3.8 million commitment from Orange County Government and a $1.5 million commitment from the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC). On Earth Day, 2008, Orange County was the first in the State to offer a solar water heater incentive. The next day, the City of Orlando became the only Department of Energy Solar America City in Florida.

The City of Orlando is managing the initiative, and Jonathan Ippel, Sustainability Project Manager for the City of Orlando’s Public Works Department, changed his Michigan winters for that Florida sunshine a couple of years ago.

“I left Michigan in 2006 with a masters in urban planning, headed to Orlando, thinking it would be a short-term gig,” said Ippel. “Here I am, three years later, working on sustainability issues. It’s been busy, fun…quite a whirlwind.”

According to Ippel, shortly after he arrived in Orlando, Mayor Dyer went to visit Chicago’s Mayor Daley. Inspired by Daley’s sustainability ethic, Mayor Dyer returned from that visit and started the City of Orlando Green Works Initiative which focuses on green buildings, transportation, sustainable infrastructure and conservation, green spaces and advocacy and education.

Coincidentally and fortunately, Ippel had experience in Ann Arbor with sustainability planning and policy. “I got plugged into the Green Works Initiative, the City began pursuing LEED for public buildings, and I got involved by doing a LEED feasibility analysis for the new Orlando Events Center (the new home of the Orlando Magic). It’s now under construction and projected to be the first LEED NBA arena in the country.”

Since then, the City has constructed five LEED fire stations and a LEED Platinum affordable home. That work put Ippel in contact with the City’s Director of Public Works, Alan Oyler, who recognized Ippel’s talents and invited him to focus on sustainable infrastructure issues full-time.

“I became the City’s Sustainable Project Manager two months ago, and primarily focus on energy, water, and solid waste initiatives, in addition to the occasional green building. We are trying to transform Orlando into the sustainability hotbed of the Southeast United States. When OUC approached us with the idea of the DOE Solar America City grant, the choice was obvious. We feel very fortunate to be the recipient, and it has facilitated stronger ties between the City, OUC, and Orange County surrounding issues of environmental sustainability.”

The partnership has set ambitious solar goals for itself: some 10MW of solar by 2010.

“While we weren’t able to meet out five megawatt goal in 2008,” said OUC’s Jennifer Szaro, “we did make quite a dent. We went from a capacity of less than 50 KW to nearly 2 MW of installed solar thermal and PV in less than 18 months. We’re very proud of this.”

According to Szaro, OUC has faced some challenges with the slowing of the economy, but are identifying ways to overcome issues like the lack of access to capital and permitting constraints.

“We’ve got a series of code official and customer education programs being developed for the coming year,” she said, “and we’ll be sitting down with community leaders and stakeholders to forge new partnerships and innovative solutions to aid us in meeting our goals. I expect we will install at least four megawatts next year alone through enhanced promotion of our solar programs, new lending partners and creative solar power purchase contracts.”

One of the partnership’s tasks is to streamline the permitting process for solar. According to Ippel, reviewing plans and inspecting installations were unclear and imprecise.

“Currently, the City requires two to three different permits depending on the solar application, which adds both cost and complexity to the process,” said Ippel. “Our Solar America City grant is enabling the team to enhance existing solar code and inspection education. We’re even looking into a single, less expensive fee permit in the city. In Orlando, we work to provide the most efficient and customer-friendly development review and permitting process possible, so it’s important that the philosophy apply to sustainable development, such as solar installations.”

Three tasks divided up among the partners are in play:

  • Task 1/Mapping-City of Orlando
  • Task 2/Charettes–OUC
  • Task 3/Education and training-Orange County, OUC

“We held two well-attended solar education seminars last fall, focusing on solar thermal and solar electric systems,” said Jodi Dittell, Orange County Environmental Protection Division. “The main focus of the seminars was to promote Orange County’s solar water heater incentive. Citizens and businesses who install solar thermal systems on their building can receive a $200 incentive from Orange County.”

Two of the area’s utility providers, Progress Energy and OUC, also provided presentations on their energy efficiency programs, and several solar industries were on hand to answers questions on solar or energy efficiency products.

All partners are working on a solar master plan, which will focus on promoting solar energy and other sustainable growth strategies into the mainstream Central Florida economy, as well as implement multiple solar projects in the next two years.

The strategic energy plan will include a solar site survey and analysis to identify the region’s solar opportunities, followed by a series of collaborative sessions with key community leaders to develop a list of solar policies and priorities to assist Metro Orlando in meeting its aggressive solar installation goals. The sessions will feature subject matter experts who will provide insight into integrating solar technologies within key sectors such as multi-family housing, new residential buildings and public buildings.

The project also will include development and implementation of solar education programs targeting groups who are integral to the successful development of a sustainable solar technology base in Metro Orlando. The final outcome of the project will be a master solar plan that will lay the foundation for a viable solar market and provide a model to growing renewable energy throughout the entire state of Florida.

One of the City’s goals is to develop a solar resource map, similar to what other Solar America Cities are doing. With a background in urban planning, Ippel recognizes the inherent value of interactive mapping.

“We initially looked at doing a solar resource map on a platform similar to San Francisco,” said Ippel, “but the proposed cost came in significantly over budget. However, the City’s Technology Management team is building a new GIS platform, and they proposed integrating the solar resource map into that platform. It’s our hope that the model will be easy to replicate. Then other interested cities could build off our model at a fairly low cost.”

Ippel believes that solar resource maps provide an increasingly important purpose to a wide group of stakeholders.

“Governments and utilities can begin analyzing what the solar potential is within a geographical area; utilities can begin incorporating varying geographically-based solar market penetration scenarios into their energy demand-supply modeling; fire fighters recognize the value of knowing where existing solar electric systems are located; and our Planning Division understands how wide-spread solar adoption could have devastating effect on our expansive urban tree canopy, which we also hope to map and study separately to this initiative. The process will hopefully lead to revised ordinances that effectively balance the tree vs. solar issue.”

The greatest value is derived from a tool that better engages and educates residents and businesses.

“As envisioned, our solar mapping tool will allow individuals to analyze the solar potential of their property just as other solar maps do. We hope to take it a step further by incorporating on-site energy data into the model, and demonstrate how energy efficiency upgrades could work in tandem with solar. By coupling existing energy data, energy efficiency, and renewable, viewers can inform themselves about the potential impacts solar hot water or solar electric may have on their utility bill as well as energy efficiency upgrades. Informed consumers will lead to better informed decision makers.”

A series of seven educational and design charettes are part of the initiative’s work.

“We’re planning to begin the charettes late this spring, or early summer,” said Ippel. “We were delayed while we searched for and hired a coordinator who’ll be responsible for organizing and facilitating the charettes. We are days away from nailing down the coordinator, so we will be off and running in no time.”

The pace is quick, the schedule is overfull. Still, the challenges formidable, but the successes are imminent.

“Challenges have been more operational in nature than obstructionist,” said Ippel. “The City is working with its partners, OUC and Orange County, on the grant initiative. We hit a few bumps early hiring a coordinator for the charettes and identifying how the GIS solar resource map will be completed. While the overall goal is to achieve greater solar market penetration in Central Florida, changing direction on some of the tasks has taken a little more effort due to the unexpected setbacks. However, we are gaining momentum, and I don’t envision this being too much of a challenge moving forward.”

Even though the challenges are ubiquitous, there’s good reason for optimism.

“On one hand, costs for solar are coming down and units are becoming more efficient. But on the other, the economic downturn creates new challenges. The credit markets makes it more difficult to finance projects, but the stimulus package also provides new opportunities for governments, businesses, and residents. DOE’s goal is to achieve solar cost-parity with fossil fuel energy by 2015, and it has tasked the Solar Cities to identify policies that remove barriers and better promote solar installations.

Ippel is genuinely enthusiastic about the work, both in Florida and in Michigan.

“The more I delve into the issues,” said Ippel, “I’m amazed at the creative solutions cities have developed to jump-start solar adoption in their communities – from bundled purchases, creative usage of multiple tax credits, feed-in tariffs, property assessments, etc. I know the folks in Ann Arbor as I interned for the City while going to grad school, and it’s great to see that my old colleagues were awarded this prestigious grant. Perhaps someday, I will return to Michigan and be a part of the Great Lakes State’s transformation from a struggling auto-based economy to the green energy economy, but right now I’m focused on the amazing and rapidly growing initiatives happening here in Orlando.”

More Renewable Energy News