ST. PETERSBURG — Duke Energy is exploring sites for a solar farm in Pinellas County.
The energy company is looking for privately or publicly owned properties throughout its Florida service territory that could accommodate fields of solar panels that would feed power to the grid, company spokesman Sterling Ivey said.
The Pinellas site being considered is about 22 acres of county-owned land off 119th Street between Ulmerton and Walsingham roads. The parcel is a former landfill adjacent to Heritage Village, the County Extension Office and the Florida Botanical Gardens.
"It's an option for us," Ivey said. "We want to do some more due diligence on the site, to see how close it is to our facilities and transmission lines."
Duke reached out to county officials in June seeking sites of 20 acres or more, according to a recent memo from County Administrator Mark Woodard to county commissioners. The county offered the 119th Street site, which is about 27 acres plus a pond of about 8 acres.
If Duke wants the site, the county would likely seek a long-term lease rather than an outright sale, said Paul Sacco, the county's real estate management director.
Duke also asked if the former Toytown landfill site could be an option. The county declined because the 240-acre parcel off Interstate 275 south of Roosevelt Boulevard is being marketed as a prime location for a mixed-use development, economic development director Mike Meidel said.
"Most of the people interested in the site want more land, not less," Meidel said. "The kind of project that would go there would need every acre they can get."
Duke is exploring potential sites as it awaits word from the state Public Service Commission on its proposed community solar program, Ivey said. He said the company is at least two months away from determining whether the Heritage Village site will work.
Duke has said solar isn't the best solution to meet Florida's utility needs but, along with other investor-owned utilities in the state, is pushing solar projects run by power companies rather than rooftop panels on homes or businesses. Although solar prices have come down, Duke says it is still more expensive than traditional means of electricity generation. The company also says solar doesn't operate during the peak — and most expensive — times on the system when power is most needed.
As for individual solar arrays on homes and businesses, the state's three largest investor-owned utilities — Duke, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light — told state regulators that solar rebate programs were not cost effective and led to the poor subsidizing the rich.
"We are researching various community solar platforms that will give all of our customers the opportunity to use solar generation without cross-subsidization between customers and without installing costly rooftop systems on their homes," Ivey said.
What the utilities are facing is a technology that is undermining their traditional business model of centralized power. The investor-owned utilities make money by building power plants and earning a return of about 10 percent on the construction costs, as well as for running the plants.
Rooftop solar panels on houses and businesses reduce the need for the utilities' centralized power.
"The idea of a community solar program — where customers who can't put solar on their own property benefit from a project located elsewhere in their community — is a good one, but the devil is in the details," said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "To be effective, it must be well designed with a direct economic benefit to customers."
Glickman said she worries the programs will be more of a "gimmick" than a serious effort to develop solar power.
Despite opposition to rooftop solar power from Duke and other utilities, some have found that the vast number of flat roofs in the Sunshine State present one of the best opportunities in the nation for solar power.
Great Bay Distributors, Florida's largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products, determined that solar panels on the rooftop of its new facility off I-275 in St. Petersburg will reduce its electric bill by as much as 40 percent.