Tampa Solar Panels Fail to Meet Promises

Published August 16, 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.

Huge Savings Promised
In 2010, federal and Hillsborough County officials announced the project to place solar panels on the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Government officials said the 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.

Taxpayers Taken for a Ride
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, instead of 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. As a result, the Hillsborough County Courthouse solar panels are likely to return only about one-third of their inflation-adjusted cost.

County Director No Longer Supports
Hillsborough County Energy Director Randy Klindworth, who initially supported the solar panel project, told WFTS he would no longer support spending taxpayer dollars on such projects.

“I’ve got to be careful how the county spends taxpayer money. I want to be very wise in how we do that, make sure we get the good return on investment,” Klindworth told the reporter.

Very Few ‘Green Jobs’
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 courthouse solar panel project produced a total of 12 jobs that lasted only four months.

Politicians Claimed Credit
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,” Castor added.

“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 officer Jennifer Holman at the press conference.

“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 to take credit for the predicted electricity cost savings.

None of these politicians and public officials have accepted public responsibility for the failed promises or explained why the program has been such a failure.

If Not Florida, Where?
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 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.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor for Environment & Climate News.