Pinellas County's Great Bay Distributors is building the largest private solar system in the state.
The 1.5-megawatt solar array will be part of the beverage distributors' massive new facility under construction just south of the Val-Pak building off Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg. The facility and the array should be ready in February.
The bottom line: The economics work, said Ron Petrini, president of Great Bay, Florida's largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products. The company expects to reduce its electric bill by as much as 40 percent.
"We know that it will be beneficial," Petrini said. "It appears, the numbers work very, very well for this company."
The system, which will cost about $2.6 million, also will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 43,610 tons over its life cycle of 25 to 30 years, the equivalent of planting 1.1 million trees.
"We really thought it was the right thing to do," Petrini added. "We live in Florida. We are building a new building. We knew it was going to have a substantially large roof area. Why not take advantage of the sunshine?"
Great Bay's system will overtake the state's current No. 1 commercial rooftop solar array at Darden Restaurant's headquarters in Orlando. Darden, which runs several chains including the Olive Garden, installed a 1.1-megawatt system just over two years ago. Darden said the system would allow its facility to go off the grid for the equivalent of two months a year.
Ikea is set to open stores with rooftop solar arrays, including a South Florida operation with a 1.18-megawatt system this summer that will edge out Darden but fall short of Great Bay's project.
Great Bay "will be the top dog," said Scott McIntyre, whose firm Solar Energy Management won the contract. "It's good news."
The installed cost of the system will run about $1.73 a watt and should pay for itself in about 6.3 years, McIntyre said. The price tag includes a 30 percent federal tax credit. Also, the company saves money by installing the array during construction of a new facility, as opposed to retrofitting an older building.
"With building from scratch, you have an open palette to build around," said Brad Dalbol, director of operations for ARCO/Murray, the contractor for the project. "This is by far the biggest solar project we've done."
Economics is driving a growing number of companies toward solar. The price of the technology has plummeted in recent years, making it more attractive, especially to companies with large facilities and big electric bills.
Polypack, a Pinellas Park manufacturer, installed a solar system last year that is about a fifth of the size of Great Bay's. The system cut Polypack's electric bill from about $4,800 to $212 in March and $300 in April, said Ed James, the company's electrical engineering manager.
"We wanted to do something for the environment, do something green," James said. "But it also has do with the monetary benefit. That's wasted space up there on the roof. It's not making anybody any money. What else are you going to do with it?"
Many state leaders in Tallahassee have not embraced widespread use of solar technology, giving deference instead to the investor-owned utilities, which maintain a firm grip on energy production. The utilities' business model depends on electricity sales. So the more business owners and residential customers install solar on rooftops, the less utilities need to produce and the less money they make.
Florida utilities have complained that rooftop solar disrupts the grid system because it's unpredictable. Clouds, for instance, can roll in, forcing the utility to always have another energy source ready to fire up. And the more businesses and homeowners install rooftop solar, the utilities argue, the more those without such systems will have to pay to maintain the grid.
Nicole LeBeau, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, said the utility supports solar but would not comment on Great Bay's decision to install such a large solar array.
Solar supporters counter that what rooftop solar does is disrupt the utilities' monopoly control over power in Florida, while giving people more choices, in particular as the technology becomes more affordable.
"The solar revolution is underway," said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Solar makes economic sense today."
Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida, asked if solar didn't make economic sense why would major companies invest in it?
"It is amazing that businesses are willing to spend money on something that everyone says costs too much," Fenton said sarcastically. He said the utilities simply are worried about customers buying less electricity. "Your electric bill would be lower and you would send less money to the utility."
Great Bay isn't stopping with solar panels. The building also will include LED lighting and natural gas generators and water heaters.
Although Great Bay will maintain a secondary facility in Holiday, the new 267,787-square-foot facility will become Great Bay's primary place of business. With offices and a warehouse, the new St. Petersburg facility will house 200 of the company's more than 300 workers.
Great Bay, a family-owned company founded in 1968, has become a leading wholesaler in the beer industry. The company distributes six of the top 10 beers in Pinellas, West Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
Petrini said the new facility will enable the company to add more brands and further grow its operation.
"We're terribly excited about it," Petrini said. "We've been located (in Largo) since 1969. We've added onto this facility to the point where there's no more room to add on. Our business continues to be good, very good."
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.