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Progress Energy warms up to solar energy

Hard to believe, but the electric company that once routinely panned solar power as too expensive and inefficient is about to introduce a whole bunch of new solar initiatives for its customers and eventually market it all here under a brand name called SunSense.

Progress Energy Florida submitted an updated 10-year plan this week to the Florida Public Service Commission that stretches its existing energy-efficiency goal of 412 million kilowatt hours to nearly 618 million kwh. That's a 50 percent increase. The company wants to offer subsidized programs to put solar photovoltaic arrays on Florida homes and businesses. And it seeks to boost its rebate by $50 (to $500) to install solar-power hot water heaters.

The PSC must first sign off on these and other initiatives.

"As the costs of life's essentials continue to rise, we know our customers want more options for saving on their energy bills," says Progress Energy Florida CEO Jeff Lyash.

All true. But is this the same Jeff Lyash who in 2007 said that Progress Energy would continue to explore alternative energy, including solar power, but noted technological breakthroughs to enhance prospects for alternative energy supplies are likely decades in the future?

It seemed a simpler time in 2006 when Lyash succeeded Bill Habermeyer as Progress Energy Florida chief. Lyash was a smart engineer with solid nuclear power experience. His primary mission was to shepherd the lengthy creation of a new generation nuclear power plant in Levy County, north of Tampa Bay.

That still is Lyash's top goal. But for several reasons, he's multi-tasking a lot more now than he might have thought when he took the top job:

• Oil and gas prices began to escalate sharply after Lyash became CEO, alarming Americans used to cheaper energy prices and reigniting the alternative energy industry.

• When Florida Gov. Charlie Crist took office in 2007, he accelerated Florida's push into alternative energy by embracing ethanol and biomass plants, and later blessed some proposed, large-scale solar plants. Reading the political tea leaves, Progress Energy raised its commitments and public relations efforts to alternative energy as a viable source of electricity. This week's flurry of announced solar power initiatives is part of that plan.

• When President Barack Obama took office in January, federal support of alternative energies and cleaner-climate initiatives soared even more.

• Progress Energy Florida's initial cost estimates for its Levy County nuclear power plant (with two reactors) and the new transmission lines needed to deliver electricity from the plant ballooned over time to more than $17 billion. While Progress Energy successfully persuaded state legislators to let it charge its Florida customers on a pay-as-you-go basis — minimizing corporate debt required to cover the expensive plants — the escalating price tag backfired.

Progress Energy backed off higher 2009 customer rates that hit amid a recession and rising unemployment. But the company plans more rate hikes later.

Catering to the popularity of solar power while lusting for nuclear power. Such is Progress Energy Florida's delicate balancing act these days.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com

Progress Energy warms up to solar energy 06/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 8:24pm]

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