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Florida plugs more houses into the sun

By Mark WeintzSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 1981

Although it carries the name of Sunshine State, Florida has been rather lackluster in the solar arena. But now a new state law, a major solar commitment by a national home builder, and aggressive action by an Orlando-area builder are sending out strong signals that the state may finally be making a backstetch bid to become the nation's solar front-runner.

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Trend-setting California has long been leagues ahead of Florida in using its solar resources for more than just tourist promotions. Late last year, however, a new energy code was adopted by Florida legislators that turned the heads of alternative-energy proponents all across the United States.

Moreover, Centex Corporation, ranked by Professional Builder magazine as the nation's No. 2 builder, has committed itself to build $275 million worth of south Florida homes that will feature solar-hot-water heating as standard equipment.

Florida's solar proponents have felt that the only way the state's solar industry could experience necessary growth would be to hook solar into the building industry.

Not long ago the very idea of uniting such a liberal-sounding technology as solar with that conservative trade would likely have caused the state's op builders to double up laughing. These days, however, few builders are laughing.

The new-home market is soft, yet the solar homes are selling.

The state's model energy-efficiency code sets down requirements that make solar technology downright attractive. Thus, builders are attending state-sponsored seminars that cover solar; funnelling through the subdivisions that feature solar; and seriously considering retooling their home-building machines.

Surprisingly, New York and New Jersey are the second- and third-ranking states in terms of solar activity, according to Shirley Hayes of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association. She and other energy experts feel the state has not felt the fuel pinch to the degree of many of the other states and therefore has been sluggish in supporting solar.

"Officials in other states have been more outspoken on the energy situation and they have taken more action," she says. Miss Hayes reads a statement by a New York official which recently appeared in a Department of Energy newsletter: "The home-building industry is where the American automobile industry was a couple of years ago -- making energy hogs and unable to sell them. The home builders are just lucky that Japan doesn't [export] houses here."

Nonetheless, Miss Hayes and other solar proponents in the Sunshine State are encouraged by Florida's new energy code.

New buildings and certain renovation projects must now meet energy standards, and home buyers are able to compare the energy efficiency of homes. The rating is based on a scale of 100, which no new home may exceed. The lower the rating the more efficient the home.

Insulation ratings, window design, solar, and a variety of other energy-related items carry specific values which are plugged into the equation.

"Florida has adopted an energy-efficiency code that seems to be innovative in that it offers that kind of point system which gives you options and is also very easy to administer," explains Gerry Mara, a policy analyst for the Center, for Renewable Resources in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Mara adds that there has been a lot of interest in Florida's system, not only by other states, but by national groups interested in getting a national energy standard.

"But it doesn't look like there is going to be a national energy standard," he says. "The administration has come out against it."

Mara says his nonprofit group supported the Building Energy Performance Standard, but the home-building industry was against it.

"The Florida code is very good," asserts Grant P. Thompson, senior associate with the Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit research and education institution also based in the nation's capital. "And I think the most interesting part is how they have gotten the entire building industry there behind it," he adds.

Mr. Thompson is alluding to the fact that rather than just write an energy code, Florida legislators asked the state's home builders to help them draft it.