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German-based group looking at Pinellas County for major solar energy project

ST. PETERSBURG — A German-based renewable energy group is looking to build the first major solar electricity farm in Pinellas County and bring as many as 160 solar manufacturing jobs to St. Petersburg.

The group of about 10 German business people have scheduled a three-day visit June 27-29 to Pinellas County to meet with Progress Energy, business leaders and city and Pinellas County officials.

"This is a real, financially backed manufacturer that has the ability to open up a factory here," said St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse.

Because of confidentiality, Progress Energy and local government officials would not disclose the name of the German businesses or many of the details of what they are proposing.

"I can confirm we have a meeting relatively soon with a company as you described out of Germany," said Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Progress Energy. "It's a basic introductory meeting."

The group is reviewing possible sites for the solar farm and a permanent facility to manufacture solar panels. Nurse said the group is considering setting up the manufacturing operation by the Pinellas Technical Education Centers in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg. The site of the solar farm is unclear.

Mike Meidel, economic development director for Pinellas County, said a solar energy company was among businesses to express interest in building at the old Toytown landfill.

Developers recently backed out of a contract for a proposed Toytown development project — which included plans for 2,100 housing units, 1.5 million square feet of shopping and 2 million square feet of offices. That frees the way for the solar company to possibly visit the site.

But Meidel suggested the county would have to think hard about a solar energy farm at the county-owned 247-acre site, which is next to Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Boulevard.

"As it's definitely not the highest and best use, just a solar farm would not line up with the criteria set by the Board of County Commissioners when they initially looked at the site," he said. "And for that matter, it obviously would not involve as many jobs. . . . It'd be a long shot."

Part of the problem is the project wouldn't be a big job creator once constructed, Meidel said. He questioned putting a solar site on land he considers very valuable.

Toytown is a tough site for building. The old landfill sits atop an aquifer that feeds into Tampa Bay. A solar array might not present as many engineering or environment challenges.

County Commissioners Susan Latvala, Norm Roche and Ken Welch said they had not heard of the solar company's interest. But they didn't rule out interest in having a solar energy operation at the old landfill since the economy has dashed development plans.

The market has changed dramatically since the county last asked developers to bid on the site.

"Maybe something like solar would be a better short term use," Latvala said. "Originally, we wanted jobs. But it's very, very expensive to build (a major housing or business development) on that site."

The company would develop and produce solar electricity that would be sold to Progress Energy to supply to its customers.

Progress already has contracts with other solar power developers to buy electricity when it becomes available, but most do not have deadlines for construction. Progress is looking to third-party developers to build solar farms because the utility says it is too expensive to do it itself. The proposal by the German business group is not one of the existing contracts.

Construction on Progress Energy Florida's first large-scale solar electric source is set to begin next month on roughly 200 acres of rural land in Lake County. Progress contracted with Blue Chip Energy to build the facility, which would power about 8,000 homes.

It's unclear whether the Germans are proposing a solar farm as large as Blue Chip's.

Like Blue Chip, the German group would sell electricity to Progress based on the cost of electricity at the time it is purchased.

For the developers, the cost of producing the energy — including development and construction — must fall below the price they can sell it to the utility to make it worth their while.

"The developer's goal is to be able to build the plants at a profit," said Scott Sutton, a spokesman for Progress Energy. He says there are signs of technological improvements and decreases in the price of solar that increasingly are making it attractive for these types of developments.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

German-based group looking at Pinellas County for major solar energy project 06/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 11:03pm]
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