While Florida utilities continue to argue that solar panels on rooftops and over parking doesn't make economic sense, the business and government communities seem to think otherwise.
The latest: Lockheed Martin plans to build a large-scale solar system at its Pinellas County facility, joining Great Bay Beer Distributors, Tampa International Airport, C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center and James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
Together, those facilities will produce almost 11 megawatts of electricity, enough to continually power more than 1,400 homes.
Lockheed Martin's solar operation, a canopy-style system that will shade employee cars in its parking lot in the 3600 block of Tampa Road in Oldsmar, is expected to produce up to 2 megawatts of electricity. That would be one of the largest solar arrays in Tampa Bay.
The Oldsmar facility employs 380 people, and provides systems engineering, software development and other services for the aerospace, technology and defense contractor.
Curt Engel, general manager for Lockheed Martin mission systems and training, said the company expects to reach a contract for the deal within the next 30 days and begin construction in early 2015. The solar array would become operational before the end of 2015, he said.
"This makes both ecological and business sense, from our standpoint," Engel said. "The business case supports the decision to go forward. It's the right thing to do."
The number of major solar systems is growing as state regulators appear poised to back away from renewable energy and energy efficiency. Staff members of the state Public Service Commission recommended on Thursday that the five commissioners back a proposal from Florida utilities to gut energy efficiency and kill solar rebate programs.
Commissioners will vote on the recommendations Nov. 25.
The utilities — led by Duke Energy Florida, Florida Power & Light and Tampa Electric — say efficiency and solar programs are too costly for ratepayers in general. They argue that the community as a whole benefits more from production of electricity from big-box power plants that the utilities own and operate.
And Alex Glenn, Duke's Florida president, has said that without efficient battery storage, solar isn't viable in the Sunshine State because there are too many clouds. "We're also the partly cloudy state," he has told state lawmakers.
But as the price of solar panels continues to fall, and with a 30 percent federal tax credit that does not expire until the end of 2016, utility customers are opting for the sun rather than the power company.
Engel declined to give the specific cost, but he said the solar array that Lockheed plans for its facility will cut the amount of power the company buys from Duke Energy by 60 percent.
In addition, with canopy solar panels for the parking lot, employees' cars are shielded from the long days of direct sun.
"Obviously, in Florida that's a big additional benefit for our employees," Engel said.
Scott McIntyre, president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, said businesses and government agencies have proven that solar power works, despite the utilities' pronouncements.
He said some argue against solar because of subsidies, such as the federal tax credit.
"Oil and gas are subsidized," McIntyre retorts. Solar, he said, is "cost effective now."
The utilities' opposition to solar, along with Tallahassee's lack of interest in developing a plan to increase its usage, is sparking a grass roots effort to change policy.
Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, has drafted a petition for a constitutional amendment to open up the solar market in Florida.
The legal barriers in Florida include the state's tangible personal property tax on solar installations, a tax that inhibits homeowners and businesses from taking advantage of leasing programs available in other states.
Florida law also prohibits any business other than utilities from selling power directly to consumers, known as "third party sales."
Tea party members and environmental groups have created an unlikely alliance, and together want solar companies to be allowed to install panels on a home or business and sell that power to a consumer.
"The reality is that because the utilities continue to cling to an archaic business model, they are out of step with both commercial and, I believe, residential interest in wanting to see more solar," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "In the long run it's a bad business decision for utilities."
Even without Tallahassee's help, businesses already see the economic benefits of solar power.
Even before the federal tax credits expire at the end of 2016, solar is expected to be cheaper than utility-produced electricity or power from the electric grid.
"The talk now is that in all but Alaska, we're going to be at grid parity next year," said James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida.
And that, Fenton said, is driving the likes of Lockheed Martin to solar as a way to reduce their operating costs in less than 10 years.
"It will give them free electricity," Fenton said, "for the next 20 years."