Promising seeds are being planted across the Sunshine State—on a very different kind of farm.
In September, word arrived that, with the help of Melbourne-based National Solar Power, one of the largest solar farms in the world is heading for Florida—a $1.5 billion solar farm in Gadsden County. The plan is to build a 400MW solar farm that would generate enough electricity to power some 32,000 homes, with the company selling its electricity to utilities.
Then in November, National Solar Power announced its intent to establish a 200MW solar farm in Hardee County, a $700 million project. The company plans ten 200-acre farms, each at a cost of $70 million. Additionally, the company—a market leader in utility-scale solar power solutions—announced the creation of Green Infrastructure Partners LLC to help fund renewable energy infrastructure projects like those in Gadsden and Hardee counties. This new company offers a platform for institutions and accredited investors to participate in “the inevitable transition to a renewable energy infrastructure in the United States.”
At that time, National Solar Power CEO James Scrivener proclaimed: “Florida is the new frontier when it comes to solar farm development.”
Quite apparently, others agree about those large swaths of land on which panels are built that absorb energy, which can then be dispersed from a single power plant to thousands of homes. Indeed, while solar farming doesn't have much history in the state, with locations spotted only about as often as a Florida panther, the concept is getting hot.
Earlier in 2011, a consortium of European businesspeople visited St. Petersburg to explore the possibility of investing in a solar farm along with a factory to manufacture solar panels. Reportedly, while the project wouldn't be inexpensive, the German and Austrian executives were encouraged by what they saw. The timing appears right.
In Orange County, that time has arrived. The Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC—The Reliable One) is building the county’s first solar farm, located at the Curtis H. Stanton Energy Center. The 5.9MW solar photovoltaic (PV) array is expected to generate enough renewable energy to power more than 600 homes. Duke Energy and Regenesis Power LLC are installing, operating and maintaining the system, and OUC plans to purchase that power for the next 20 years. The solar farm not only increases OUC’s portfolio of clean generation, but it also provides the opportunity to study the impact a large-scale solar array will have on an electric distribution system, according to OUC Board President Maylen Dominguez.
The Stanton Solar Farm will employ 25,172 solar modules and 600 tons of steel, while 17 miles of wire will connect the modules to the electric grid. Nearing completion, the farm adds to an already diverse fleet of clean, reliable generation at OUC’s 3,280-acre Stanton Energy Center, which is home to natural gas, landfill gas and coal.
Meanwhile, Lakeland Electric is constructing a 5.5MW solar farm at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The 45-acre farm will feature 18,000 solar panels and generate an estimated 9 million kWh of solar electricity annually. The first phase of the project is nearing completion, and the second is expected to be completed in 2012.
Over 25 years, the solar farm will produce enough clean energy to power more than 15,500 Lakeland homes for one year. In that same amount of time, the solar farm will offset more than 299 million pounds of carbon dioxide, equal to removing more than 29,000 cars from the road for one year. The project comes by virtue of a strategic solar power service agreement between Maryland-based SunEdison and Lakeland Electric, where SunEdison finances and deploys the solar farm with no upfront costs paid by Lakeland Electric. In return, Lakeland Electric purchases the power produced at long-term, predictable rates for 25 years.
Call this more than solar speculation. All these projects represent potential win-wins for the utilities and companies involved, as well as for energy consumers. And, if forecasts are correct, they're a real sign of activity to come. According to the Institute for Energy Research, most of Florida’s electric power comes from natural gas (54 percent), coal (25 percent), nuclear (13 percent) and petroleum (4 percent). Yet, some industry experts contend that solar power could supply half the world's energy needs by 2060. Notably, the solar industry grew 67 percent in 2010—faster than any other U.S. industry—cites the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Ironically, given the weather, in Florida, solar has just taken a while longer to shine here than in other parts of the country. Some experts say the Florida Legislature hasn't exactly been in solar's corner. For example, it didn't renew a property tax exemption for homeowners who installed solar PV or solar thermal water heating in their homes.
Now, however, the climate is changing. Not coincidentally, the price of solar is declining by roughly 10 percent a year. Better technology and greater financial incentives also are heightening interest. The result: Within the next five years, some experts predict, the cost to produce solar energy could be less than the cost to burn fossil fuels.
The landscape is growing fertile.