An interview with Dr. James Fenton, Florida Solar Energy Center
As part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of business men and women throughout the state, The Invading Sea spoke with Dr. James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) and professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Central Florida.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
The FSEC is based on the Space Coast in Cocoa. Can you talk a little bit about how climate change and sea-level rise have impacted that area of Florida?
I actually live in a house that’s six feet above sea level, so rising sea levels make a big difference. I’m most concerned about water intrusion because as the salt comes into our sandbars, that can lead to problems with drinking water and so forth.
But, maybe even more importantly, there’s also the acidification of our ocean and what that does to our coral reefs and things like this, as well as clearly some of the weather events that we’ve got, from fires and so on and so forth.
So, I suppose, in some ways we’ve been fortunate in Brevard out at the Space Coast that we haven’t had any direct hits in a while. But I have survived through two times of six days without electricity since I’ve lived here for 15 years, so I’m hoping to talk to you a little about energy resiliency. But clearly we need to stop burning things. It’s silly. Burning energy and stuff like that is like burning money and of course it causes all these problems we’re here to talk about.
Can you tell us about some of the research going on at the FSEC and how it might benefit us in the future?
We were created during the first Arab oil embargo back in the 1970s. We actually were created to test and certify all the solar thermal hot water heaters and pool heaters that people put on their roofs. We still do that today.
My biggest research group is actually with energy-efficient buildings. Close to 80 percent of all electricity in Florida is used in our buildings, and the easiest thing you can do is make your building more efficient to lower your electric bill. You can then add your own solar; that can even lower your electric bill even more.
You can eventually put batteries on, or you can plug your electric car in and vehicle-to-grid. So, all these things to get to this net-zero emissions by the 2050 that we’re talking about. We’re working on those research areas to go ahead and do that. I have a staff of 60 people working full-time on bringing Florida into the future.
Currently, Floridians rely heavily on fossil fuels for home energy. How much of our energy can realistically come from solar and other renewables in the future?
We probably aren’t going to see large percentages of solar in Florida for a while. We’re currently at about 3 percent of our electricity comes from solar; California is up to 20.
So there’s utility solar, there’s rooftop solar. We can get to 100 percent. The world will plan to do that, as an example, by the year 2050. If you look at the amount of electricity that the world uses today, which is mostly fossil fuels, by the time we get to 2050 to be net-zero emission, we’ll have to make four times as much total electricity as we do today.
That will come from all renewables. And then a lot of those renewables will be used to generate hydrogen, which is indirect electrification, and we’ll use that hydrogen as a gaseous fuel to fly planes and do some other things. But we’ve got a long way to go.
If we really want to get to net-zero emissions, the technology push needs to occur between now and the year 2030, and I’d like to think we at FSEC are helping the state move in that direction.
What obstacles are preventing us from using solar on a bigger scale in Florida?
The first obstacle was that the cost of solar was way too high.
So 10 years ago, nobody in their right mind would put solar on their roof. The reason why New Jersey beat Florida is that New Jersey was paying more for their electricity back in 2017, and the price of solar got cheaper than the price out of the wall so everybody in New Jersey did it.
That happened in Florida in the year about 2017. Now, we have some rules as to who can sell electricity. So you can go ahead and put solar on your roof, no problem at all. Utilities can go ahead and build solar fields, and right now they are building 500 acres worth of solar, less than 75 megawatts, and they’re printing money doing it.
They’re constantly putting them out, making solar, and it makes it the cheapest power they can possibly make. Now they’re having to add more batteries as time goes on, because we’ve got to get through the evenings. And the residents, on the other hand, if you own your roof and you have $10,000 to invest, the best investment is to put solar on your roof.
Well okay, what about all the people that don’t own their roofs? What about the people that are already investing $10,000? Well, unfortunately, in Florida we don’t allow third-party sales. In other words, where somebody puts solar on your roof and sells you electricity, that’s against the law. That’s how most other states do it but we have a monopoly structure for our utilities and that’s the way it is. But you can lease it, and so there are financing things. So most of the problems that we’ve got are the financial models. The costs are there. It’s cheaper. It’s cost-effective.
The advantage of making solar in the state, energy efficiency in the state, all the jobs stay here and all the wealth stays here. People aren’t aware of this, but the clean energy jobs out there are twice as many as agriculture in the state of Florida and we pride ourselves on being the agriculture state.
And we’ve just started on the clean energy, so you can imagine where the job growths are too. So it’s an exciting time and in a lot of the cases we just have to get our act together. We’ll see whether our current president’s new initiatives move forward and we embrace this or we continue to stay in the past.
What can federal, state, or local governments do to help?
Well, the local communities are ratepayers through their tax dollars, so city governments … should get in and do audits on their buildings and make them more energy-efficient.
Then you can look into whether solar would be a viable option to lower your electric bill. I remind everybody: Most of us are consumers of energy. Our goal is to consume the least amount possible. That makes your building worth more. Then look into solar for options.
Seriously consider electric cars.
I feel like an 18-year-old with my electric car. I love being stopped by a red light, because I can blow the doors off a Corvette with my Nissan Leaf. It is so much fun to blow the doors off of cars.
So it’s fun to drive and of course it’s saving money. It is cheaper for us to save the planet than to continue to destroy it, and we can all do our part. So I think everybody’s going to find that you’ll be getting electric cars pretty quick because they’re cheaper and they’re better.
I’m excited about where we’re going.
Kevin Mims, a Florida-based freelance journalist, is the producer of “The Business of Climate Change.” He conducted this interview with Mr. Fenton.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state.