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Tampa Electric to build largest solar array in Tampa Bay

TAMPA — Tampa Electric Co. wants to build the biggest solar array in the Tampa Bay area.

The subsidiary of TECO Energy announced Tuesday that it plans to erect a 25-megawatt facility using 70,000 solar panels on 125 acres at its Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach.

When finished in 2016, it will be the largest solar installation in the bay area. It will produce more than seven times the electricity generated by the current title-holder, Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center, which generates up to 3.2 megawatts.

"We're pleased to be able to demonstrate our commitment to providing our customers with more renewable energy by taking advantage of declining solar system prices and the land we own at Big Bend," TECO Energy president Gordon Gillette said in a statement. TECO owns Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas System.

Scott McIntyre, CEO of Solar Energy Management, LLC, commended the project but said the Tampa Bay region and Florida are still far behind the solar curve. He called 25 megawatts "miniscule" compared to the demand for solar energy.

A 25 megawatt solar project could power up to 3,500 homes.

"Florida is woefully lacking," he said, noting that the state with the most solar radiant energy east of the Mississippi ranks 18th nationally in solar power implementation.

In the Panhandle, regulators recently blessed a plan to build 120 megawatts of solar capacity on military installations including Eglin Air Force Base.

This is Tampa Electric's biggest foray into solar yet, but the utility still generates most of its power using coal.

The company said that for the most recent 12-month period ending in June, 54 percent of its power came from coal, 41 percent from natural gas and oil, and 5 percent from other utilities. In 2014, by comparison, North Carolina's Duke Energy used a mix of 66 percent natural gas, 31 percent coal and 3 percent renewables to power its Florida customers.

"It's an effort to embrace renewables," said TECO Energy communications manager Martha Monfried. "We're becoming less and less dependent on coal."

It's not bad business, either.

"As the price of solar continues to go down this has really penciled out for us and it seemed to make sense at this scale," Monfried said. That, coupled with building the solar project on property the company already owns, was key to the Big Bend project's feasibility.

The company did not disclose how much it will cost to build the project. But it included that cost in stating that it will have spent a total of $50 million on solar energy since 2000.

The solar announcement came a day after the Obama administration released its new "Clean Power Plan" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the nation's coal-burning plants. Monfried said the new emissions standards, which aim to stymie the use of coal, are worrisome.

"We're concerned about timing and potential customer impact," she said. "It's reasonable to expect these regulations will increase the cost of electricity in the future."

Power plants moving off of coal could cause a spike in the price of gas, McIntyre warned, demonstrating the need for a diversified energy policy.

"The bottom line is that solar power works here in Florida and it works on a utility scale," said McIntyre, who is also president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy. "I applaud TECO for doing all these things but there's a reason — it makes economic sense on a utility scale and a commercial scale."

But, he said, if Florida's laws were different, the state's fledgling solar industry could employ tens of thousands of workers. McIntyre is one of the solar advocates pushing for an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would end the ban on the private generation and sale of solar power. The amendment is opposed by the state's utilities.

Monfried said Tampa Electric cannot yet say how the new solar array will impact the future rates that customers will pay for power.

"Although energy from the sun is free and the costs for solar systems keep going down, it's too early to predict how Tampa Electric's investment in additional solar generation will impact overall rates," she said.

The Big Bend project would be the second solar project recently undertaken by Tampa Electric. The first is under construction at Tampa International Airport on top of its south economy parking garage and is expected to generate two megawatts.

Tampa Bay's other solar installations include two Pinellas projects: the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, which generates 1.8 megawatts; and the 1.5 megawatt array at Great Bay Distributors. The solar panels at the Tampa Ikea store generate 1.19 megawatts.

The parcel where Tampa Electric plans to build the 25-megawatt solar array was the site of a coal-fired power plant that 15 years ago got TECO in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anne Steele at asteele@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @annemariesteele.

Tampa Electric to build largest solar array in Tampa Bay 08/04/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2015 10:28pm]
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