Florida Solar Panels Producing Less than Half of Promised Power

Published July 29, 2014

Rooftop solar panels installed at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa, Florida are producing less than half their promised power, county records reveal. Rather than lowering electricity costs, as promised, the poor-performing solar panels are causing a dramatic increase in electricity costs.

In 2010, federal and Hillsborough County officials announced the project to place solar panels on the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Government officials said the solar panels, costing $1.2 million, would pay for themselves in electricity cost savings. Officials claimed the panels would provide at least 40 percent of the building’s electricity needs and save more than $60,000 per year in electricity costs.

Hillsborough County maintains a website where people can view the real-time solar energy produced by the panels, as well as an ongoing tally of the panels’ lifetime electricity production. According to the website, the solar panels are producing less than half their promised electricity and are reducing the courthouse’s electricity bill by only $27,000 per year.

WFTS News in Tampa obtained copies of the courthouse’s electricity bills and confirmed the savings are no more than about $2,000 per month. WFTS also confirmed the panels are reducing electricity bills by only 15 to 18 percent, rather than the promised 40 percent.

At $27,000 per year, it would take 45 years to recover the solar panels’ costs. Accounting for inflation, it would take closer to 50 years to recover the costs. However, solar panels have a typical lifespan of only 15 to 20 years. Also, the effectiveness of the panels decreases throughout the panels’ lifespan, so it unlikely the panels will continue to reduce electricity costs by $27,000 per year. All told, the Hillsborough County Courthouse solar panels are likely to return only about one-third of their inflation-adjusted cost.

Federal taxpayers paid for most of the $1.2 million cost as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the Obama stimulus. The Obama stimulus was billed as a cost-effective way to produce jobs during a time of rising unemployment. According to Hillsborough County officials, the $1.2 million courthouse solar panel project produced a total of 12 jobs that lasted only four months.

In 2010, local politicians eagerly lined up for the news cameras to take credit for purportedly saving taxpayers money through the solar panels.

“I’d like to welcome and thank everybody who has come out this morning to help us celebrate Hillsborough County’s government going solar,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner at an October 2010 press conference.

“It is so wonderful to see the Recovery Act at work in our community, creating jobs and saving money” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa).

“This is a nice initiative that will allow the county to put a little money back into the pockets of taxpayers at a time that they need it most, and to create jobs,” said Castor.

“Hillsborough County is a great example of how the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program is being utilized across the country,” said U.S. Department of Energy grant project office Jennifer Holman.

“The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program is one of the signature programs of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” said Holman.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s Office director of administration and special projects Preston Trigg, Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham also spoke at the press conference taking credit for the predicted electricity cost savings.

The failure of the Hillsborough County Courthouse solar panels to return even half their cost bodes poorly for solar panel projects in other cities and states. Florida is the southernmost state in the continental United States and the Hillsborough County Courthouse used the most advanced solar panels available. Solar projects in other cities and states will not have these advantages.

“It is the most advanced solar product on the market to date for an environment of this application,” said Andrew Tanner, president of EcoSolar, at the press conference.

“It is very light-sensitive and can produce energy at low-light levels, including the moon,” said Tanner.