Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Orlando Sentinel Features ASP and Maureen McHale

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Central Florida's solar industry growing hotter

Maureen McHale is the marketing and public-relations director with Advanced Solar Photonics in Lake Mary, which plans to ramp up production later this month. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ, ORLANDO SENTINEL / June 19, 2009)

In the midst of a dreary economy, the people behind a new company in Lake Mary say things are looking quite sunny.

Advanced Solar Photonics plans to start manufacturing solar panels later this month. While Orange County is courting a solar manufacturer from Ohio, the Lake Mary upstart is among a number of solar companies that already make Central Florida home.

And they say that, despite the economy, business is great.

Advanced Solar Photonics expects to hire 1,500 people within the next two years. UMA Solar, an Altamonte Springs company that sells a variety of solar goods, plans to start manufacturing solar water heaters in Seminole County this summer. Winter Haven-based QuickBeam, which has been designing and installing solar-electric systems for a year and a half, just opened a second location in Orlando.

"We've seen explosive growth in the solar business locally," said Richard Smith, president of Longwood's Superior Solar Systems, which worked on the 1-megawatt solar electric system recently installed on the roof of the Orange County Convention Center.

Across the state, more people are putting solar panels on homes, on commercial buildings or in sunny, remote areas to capture solar energy and to use it for heating water or producing power. A household solar-electric system can be as simple as a panel that powers an outdoor light or as complex as a series of roof panels that provide electricity to an entire home.

Those in the solar industry say the combined momentum of government incentives, the green movement and the search for cheaper energy is creating the growing demand. Membership in the Longwood-based Florida Solar Energy Industries Association has doubled within the past 18 months to about 130 members.

"It's a hot topic — sorry for the pun," said Sherri Shields, assistant director for communications at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa, a research institute of the University of Central Florida. "With the price of oil fluctuating and energy independence, I think people are finally starting to pay attention to solar."

The center's solar-technology training courses are booked through October, and there's a waiting list for the certifications the center provides for solar equipment used in Florida.

Solar companies in Central Florida generally fall into two categories: those that started with a round of government incentives in the late 1970s, and those that started less than five years ago amid fresh demand.

The older companies say they survived on pool-heating business between the original incentives, which ended in the 1980s, and the recent resurgence. Now, pool business has declined along with the construction industry, while solar water heaters and solar electric systems, which can help homeowners save on power bills, are doing well.

In 2006, the state started offering rebates of as much as $100,000 for companies and $20,000 for residences that installed solar systems. Money budgeted for the rebates has been spent, but a round of federal stimulus dollars is expected to fill the gap. The program sunsets in July 2010.

"I remain cautiously optimistic that we can get it extended," said Bruce Kershner, executive director of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association.

Since January, Florida property owners have also been able to claim a property-tax exemption for solar installations. And at the federal level, the 30 percent residential-solar tax credit used to be capped at $2,000, but last year lawmakers eliminated the limit. Federal stimulus packages have also emphasized green building techniques.

But along with the growth in solar technology have come unqualified technicians. Contractors complain that they often have to fix others' shoddy work.

"You need to make sure that these are licensed people that you are dealing with," Smith said.

Rachael Jackson can be reached at rjackson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-540-4358

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