South Miami

South Miami puts off vote requiring solar panels for new homes — wants ‘to get it right’

After a protracted meeting Tuesday night, South Miami commissioners voted unanimously to hold off on a measure that would require new homes in the city to be installed with solar panels, the first such law in Florida, saying they wanted to make sure the city was adhering to Florida building code laws before taking a final vote.

“We want to do this right,” said Mayor Philip Stoddard, who powers his electric car and entire house with solar panels, including air-conditioning. He pays Florida Power & Light a monthly electric bill of about $10 a month.

The ordinance, which the commissioners had passed unanimously on first reading in early June, would require that 175 square feet of solar panel be installed per 1,000 square feet of roof area on new houses built in the city. For people who want to expand their home, the ordinance would only apply if the expansion were more than 50 percent of the home’s total square footage.

Four similar ordinances exist in the United States, all of which are in California.

About 15 to 18 people spoke at Tuesday’s late-night meeting, with the majority of people in favor of the measure.

“It’s a shame that we are in the Sunshine State and are not using the sunshine,” said resident Tammy Tullis.

Jody Finver, the county coordinator with Florida Solar United Neighborhoods, an advocacy group, viewed the proposed ordinance as “a safety mechanism that protects us from getting our energy from nuclear power plants and pipelines that sit right next to our drinking water.”

Still, others were concerned about making the measure mandatory, fearing it would raise home prices in South Florida’s already expensive real estate market.

In general, solar energy adds 1 percent to the home-building cost, although homeowners can make the money back in around 10 years after their utility bills decrease, studies have shown.

“Not everybody wants to go green,” said new homeowner Rachel Walker. “It should be a choice. It's a good idea, but it's not for everyone.”

Another resident, Bradley Cassel, said the mandated solar could be a gateway to other required city measures.

“What's next, hybrid cars?" he asked. “Where's this going to stop?"

FPL spokeswoman Alys Daly said the company’s biggest concerns is the notion that new homeowners will be guaranteed savings by installing solar. To get money back, one must have a high electric bill to begin with.

“Our typical customer pays less for their electricity than the national average,” she said Wednesday. “In states like California that have more solar than we do, their electric bills are two to three times as high as FPL's bills.”

It’s hard to compare state to state in this context, Daly said.

“In California, it's a different kind of sun from what we have here. The sun that radiates on the panel is very strong,” she said. “Here, it's cloudy and it rains in the summer. We need other forms of power that are going to support power needs when the sun isn't as strong.”

A representative from a builders’ group brought up whether the measure complied with the state’s building codes.

“No one can dispute that we want to move forward with renewable energy,’’ said Truly Burton, vice president of the Builders Association of South Florida. “While it is well-meaning, our association has concerns. To me, it kind of looks like a building code revision.”

Solar has been a contentious issue in the state, dating back to last year’s statewide vote on Amendment 1, a measure heavily financed by the utility industry that would have limited rooftop solar expansion.

Voters defeated the measure after the media revealed the utilities had tried to cast the amendment as pro solar when, in fact, they wanted to keep out solar companies that would compete against them.

In April, FPL announced plans to construct its first Miami-Dade solar plant, a 10-year venture.

South Miami’s commissioners, in tabling the measure, agreed with Stoddard that they wanted to get the measure right and agreed to research the building code issues and any other issues that crop up.

“We want to start small and start simple,’’ Stoddard said. “We don't have a lot of construction in South Miami. It gives us the chance to see how it works. If you do make it compulsory, the builders do it right. And I'm interested in getting this right.”