The Florida Energy and Climate Commission decided Friday to allocate $13.8 million in unspent stimulus money to cover a portion of the state’s unpaid solar rebates. Even with that measure, though, more than $40 million in unfunded rebate claims will persist.

Meeting in Orlando, commissioners said the program stoked the false expectation that people who installed solar panels would automatically receive rebates. As a result, they piled onto the program’s growing waiting list, even after funds dried up.

According to Gov. Charlie Crist‘s Energy Office, there were roughly 16,000 unpaid rebate claims before the commission’s decision, totaling $54 million, and that $14.6 million of those claims had been approved — meaning the stimulus funds will cover most, but not all, of the approved claims.

Kathy Baughman-McLeod, who led the working group assigned to parcel out the unused fund, said that since the rebate applications had already been approved, the stimulus money could easily be put to use in one fell swoop.

One reason the program attracted more applicants than it could provide rebates for was that information on its website was not updated in real-time, she said. The site was intended to help users track the availability of rebate funds, but updates lagged as applications poured in, which led people to believe there was money available even after funds had been depleted.

Bob Shuler of Summerfield says he had checked the program’s website early last year before he decided to install solar panels on his home. By the time his system was up and running last fall, the program had been depleted.

His system has less than 3 kilowatts of capacity — enough to cut his electricity consumption by three quarters in the winter, and roughly a third in the summer. Without the rebate, installing the panels made little financial sense, he says, but saving money was never his goal. He wanted to cut down on the amount of pollution produced by his household.

People visit Shuler to ask about his solar panels, he says, “But when they find out the rebate program ended, they’re no longer interested.”

The legislature created the four-year program in 2006. At the time, it was touted as part of an effort to attract renewable energy industries to the state. The program was not renewed during a 2010 session in which lawmakers failed to agree on a renewable energy policy.

“They were out broadcasting to the world that we’ve got this wonderful program down here,” says Paul Joyce, who’s waiting on a check that should cover roughly 40 percent of the cost of his 5-kilowatt system.

Since Florida created its rebate program, other states have managed to craft more sensible solar programs, he says.

Joyce installed his system to achieve a measure of energy independence, and as a hedge against policies like cap-and-trade — which could increase the cost of electricity drawn from fossil fuels. Still, the rebates were a crucial part of his calculations.

“If you look at the economics of the thing, that’s the only way it comes close to being sensible,” he says.

Joyce says he’d like to see the state’s next set of solar incentives modeled on Gainesville’s feed-in tariff program or some other model: one insulated against the whims of politicians.

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