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Robert Trigaux

FPL's new solar energy plant: The art of polishing 190,000 mirrors to generate electricity




Wake up and good morning. Chalk up another innovation to South Florida's FPL: The start-up in Martin County of its first hybrid solar energy facility in the world to directly connect to an existing combined cycle natural gas power plant. The goal of solar energy in this case -- using 190,000 mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun by 80 times --  is supplemental. It will offset the use of natural gas used in an adjacent power plant to generate electricity.

Some facts:

* It is the largest solar thermal plant (at 75 megawatts on 500 acres) in the eastern United States, generating enough power to serve about 11,000 homes.

* During construction, it created more than 1,000 direct jobs.

* FPL estimates it will save customers $178 million in fuel costs over its lifetime.

* It took four months to sponge clean all 190,000 mirrors. They work best, of course, when they are dust free.

fplmartinsolarhybrid_construction_2.jpgAs reported by the Palm Beach Post, here's how it works:

First, the mirrors rotate to follow the sun, moved by hydraulic motors and monitored by computer operators in a control room.

Second, the sun's energy is beamed into glass-covered piping, heating synthetic oil to 740 degrees. The fluid flows to the solar steam plant. There, the heat boils water.

Third, the steam from the boiling water gets converted to mechanical energy through a steam turbine. Voila: Electricity.

As the Post reported, FPL senior vice president Eric Silagy says 2008 legislation allowed FOL to build this solar facility and two others nearby. Since solar plants are more expensive to build than other plants, Silagy says more legislation is needed allowing FPL to recoup costs. The company wants to build an additional 300 to 500 megawatts of solar. Here's the Palm Beach Post story.

And here's related coverage from the Sunshine State News, Gov. Rick Scott praising the project in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and FPL's own video showing how it all works.

There's the difference between FPL and most other power companies. Somehow, FPL can get these plants built -- extending  its learning curve on how to make solar energy work better -- while other companies shy away from most alternative energy efforts citing costs that are not competitive with current fuels sources like natural gas, nuclear and coal. Currently, FPL uses a cost recovery model to shift some of the burden of construction onto the ratepayer. It's similar to methods by other power companies to charge customers in advance for building nuclear power plants.

Let's see who will be standing when alternative energies start to look mainstream.

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, St. Petersburg Times 


[Last modified: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 7:30am]


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