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As energy scene changes fast, Florida needs to embrace nuclear and solar options

In the less than Homeric history of Florida's energy industry, the coming week may deserve special attention.

State regulators in Tallahassee will be busy listening with sympathetic ears to Progress Energy Florida and FPL, Florida's two largest providers of electricity. The utilities will argue that fast-escalating surcharges they plan to add to their customers' monthly bills in the coming years are the best option to help prepay the massive and still-rising price tags for new nuclear power plants, which are not expected to come online for many years.

And a little-known firm in Melbourne expects to announce where — in either rural Florida or Georgia or North Carolina — it will choose to build a 4,000-acre, 400-megawatt complex of solar farms.

Not only will this complex represent one of the largest solar farms in the country. The firm behind it also plans to sell its sun-generated power to the local electric company at a price that will not require the utility to charge its customers a premium for tapping a renewable energy source like solar.

Let me repeat that: Solar power, says National Solar Power CEO James Scrivener, will be sold to the local power company at no extra charge to customers.

"We are market competitive," says Scrivener, 40, whose entrepreneurial roots lie in the space industry. "That is the linchpin. That is where most people will say we are crazy."

The financial key, he says, lies in the sheer economy of scale of building big solar farms and the sale of renewable energy credits to large corporations and the government. They use such credits in sustainability plans to help offset their own pollution costs.

Two large banks, which Scrivener says he will identify when the first solar complex is announced, are backing National Solar.

Hensel Phelps Construction Co., a multibillion-dollar firm with many national and government projects, including rebuilding the damaged section of the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, confirms it is a partner with National Solar and will build its solar farms.

It's important that both nuclear power and solar are in the news this week in Florida. I am not asking Floridians to choose, at least not at this point, between nuclear power and solar power. Just the opposite.

I urge Floridians to recognize that rapid economic and technology changes are under way in the energy arena. And when it comes to its energy future, Florida would be wise not to simply put its eggs in one basket.

Forget the bobblehead strategy: endorsing nuclear energy, simply nodding along with big, pro-nuke utility companies. That isn't a good and independent-minded state policy. Despite the spring's disaster after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and nuclear power's skyrocketing costs here, nuclear energy may yet be a major factor in Florida's future ability to generate electricity.

But renewable energy sour­ces like solar are quickly gaining solid economic ground and may soon belong more prominently in the state's mix of energy sources.

Especially when any new nuclear power plants here are still many years away from operation.

And solar or any other renewable sources shouldn't be blessed to the exclusion of more traditional fuels like natural gas and, yes, even nuclear to generate our electricity.

Remember that nuclear power, once built and operating, can deliver electricity around the clock. Solar works, of course, only when the sun is shining. That actually makes it complimentary to mainstream power plants because Florida's electricity demands are highest (and air conditioners are most in use) when the sun is strongest.

Florida politics, rarely a bastion of innovation or scientific reason, thus far has given solar proponents little reason to push renewable energy in this state.

Regulators may be poised to rubber-stamp an aggressive rate surcharge to finance nuclear power in Florida, but I don't hear nuclear power supporters calling these up-front fees what they really are: a massive subsidy to Progress Energy and FPL that dumps a multibillion-dollar bill for future nuclear power plants on today's customers.

Now comes National Solar Power. This is no Pollyanna column about solar. I have no idea if a private Melbourne firm with few employees, no particular assets and no track record yet in solar power can actually deliver what CEO Scrivener believes his firm can.

Let's be skeptical. But we better give him a shot.

Earlier this summer, National Solar Power offered four rural counties in Florida (Gadsden, Hardee, Osceola and Suwannee), two counties in Georgia (Sumter and Tattnall) and one county in North Carolina (Guilford in the Greensboro area) an unusual opportunity:

Give us your best tax and incentive package, and we will choose a site in one of these three states to build one of the largest solar power complexes in the country.

In an interview, Scrivener says the complex will consist of 20 separate but nearby solar farms, each one 200 acres in size. Combined, the 4,000 acres will generate up to 400 megawatts of power — roughly half the electric output of a small nuclear plant — capable of powering about 32,000 homes.

National Solar chose 20 solar farms rather than one big one for several reasons. First, it's easier to find several smaller pieces of land than one big tract.

Second, 20 separate sites will put the solar farms closer to various transmission lines that will feed the output into the existing electric grid.

Third, building 20 separate 20-megawatt solar plants requires less federal bureaucracy than one big one.

And fourth, 20 solar farms provides flexibility to spread the complex over multiple counties, providing more jobs to rural areas and, in turn, encouraging more than one county to provide incentives to National Solar.

We should hear this week where this complex will end up. Scrivener — based in Florida with an engineering degree from the Florida Institute of Technology — says that even if the first site ends up in another state, he hopes to build eventually in the Sunshine State.

In Florida, Scrivener says his firm has a standard commitment from Progress Energy Florida to purchase his solar power if and when a solar farm is built.

Scrivener's partners in National Solar Power include John Broughton, a fellow FIT engineer, longtime NASA employee and solar industry veteran nicknamed the "Solar Moses." Other partners include Michael Garraway, another FIT graduate whose business success is helping to initially bankroll National Solar, and Malcolm Kirschenbaum, an attorney at the Gray Robinson law firm and a Cocoa Beach area real estate investor.

Florida, keep your energy options open. Things are changing fast.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

As energy scene changes fast, Florida needs to embrace nuclear and solar options 08/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 8:13pm]
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