ARCADIA — Greg Bove steps into his pickup truck and drives down a sandy path to where the future of Florida's renewable energy plans begin: acres of open land filled with solar panels that will soon power thousands of homes and business.
For nearly a year, construction workers and engineers in this sleepy town of citrus trees and cattle farms have been building the nation's largest solar panel energy plant. Testing will soon be complete, and the facility will begin directly converting sunlight into energy, giving Florida a momentary spot in the solar energy limelight.
The DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center will power a small fraction of Florida Power & Light's more than 4 million-customer base; nevertheless, at 25 megawatts, it will generate nearly twice as much energy as the second-largest photovoltaic facility in the United States.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit the facility Tuesday, when it officially begins producing power for the electric grid.
As demand grows and more states create mandates requiring a certain percentage of their energy come from renewable sources, the size of the plants is increasing. The southwest Florida facility will soon be eclipsed by larger projects announced in Nevada and California.
"We took a chance at it, and it worked out," said Bove, construction manager at the project, on about 180 acres 80 miles southeast of Tampa. "There's a lot of backyard projects, there's a lot of rooftop projects, post offices and stores. Really this is one of the first times where we've taken a technology and upsized it."
Despite its nickname, the Sunshine State hasn't been at the forefront of solar power. Less than 4 percent of Florida's energy has come from renewable sources in recent years. And unlike California and many other states, Florida lawmakers haven't agreed to setting clean energy quotas for electric companies to reach in the years ahead.
The DeSoto facility and two other solar projects Florida Power & Light is spearheading will generate 110 megawatts of power.
The investment isn't cheap: The DeSoto project cost $150 million to build and the power it supplies to 3,000 homes and businesses will represent just a sliver of the more than 4 million accounts served by the state's largest electric utility.
But there are some economic benefits: It created 400 jobs for draftsmen, carpenters and others whose work dried up as the southwest Florida housing boom came to a close. Once running, it will require few full-time employees.
Overall, the United States still trails other nations in building photovoltaic plants.
Spain and Germany have made larger per-capita commitments to solar power because of aggressive government policies, said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. And China has announced plans to pay up to 50 percent of the price of solar power systems of more than 500 megawatts.
"If we don't get our market right and send the right market signals and really support growing this technology, we will be buying solar panels from other countries," Smith said.
Gov. Charlie Crist tried but failed to get the Legislature to pass a law that would have required power companies to generate 20 percent of their electricity through clean sources by 2020.
"We're at a point here in Florida where we've proven this can be done on a larger scale," said Jose Suarez, an FPL spokesman. "So it's really up to the Legislature and the governor to provide the necessary leadership to promote the green economy in Florida."