More than 100,000 solar panels, tilting in unison to catch maximum rays at a Polk County phosphate mine no longer in use, will supply electricity to 3,400 Tampa Electric customers starting in 2011.
For a 110-year-old utility long wedded to burning coal and natural gas, the 25-megawatt solar project will be the first major effort to harness one of Florida's most plentiful resources.
Parent company TECO Energy has agreed to buy the power for 25 years from Energy 5.0, a West Palm Beach renewable energy company founded in 2006. Energy 5.0 will spread the photovoltaic silicon panels across 300 to 400 acres in Polk and transmit the sun's captured energy to TECO.
"All the risk of performance is on us, not on them. If we somehow fail to deliver, TECO pays nothing," said Vince Zodiaco, president of Energy 5.0. "I'd say it's pretty smart."
Solar works when particles of sunlight, called photons, knock loose, minute electrons from silicon in the panels. While solar power still costs about three times that of coal-fired power, TECO customers will barely feel it in their bills.
That's because the project will produce energy for only one-half of 1 percent of the utility's 667,000 customers. TECO services all of Hillsborough County, part of Polk, Oldsmar in Pinellas County and the Dade City area of Pasco County.
The exact price of the solar power relative to hydrocarbon power won't be known for a while, TECO spokesman Rick Morera said. Energy 5.0 has yet to choose its silicon panel supplier. Nor has the Florida Public Service Commission approved the deal yet.
"We are hoping that if this 25-megawatt project works, we'll continue to build on that," Morera said.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has been pushing renewable energy on the premise that burning coal and natural gas contributes to global warming. Lakeland Electric and Miami-based Florida Power & Light also have solar projects under way.
Over the 25 years of the contract, the Polk solar collectors, when compared with natural gas turbines, would prevent TECO from releasing 1.45 million tons of carbon dioxide.
"I applaud TECO and Energy 5.0 on this exciting partnership that moves Florida closer to our goal of increasing energy diversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Crist said in a news release.
Energy 5.0 will have to ensure that the panels, perched on short poles, are resistant to hurricanes. Zodiaco is a 40-year power industry veteran with extensive experience in coal production. He said the beauty of solar is that fuel is perpetually free. The expense comes from the solar panels, a relatively inefficient technology in which only 10 to 20 percent of sunlight is converted to electricity.
"Solar is not cheap," Zodiaco said. "It's obvious the industry is working hard to bring down costs. Society recognizes the benefits of solar: no emissions, no trucks on the road, no pipelines."