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Utilities slowly turn to the sun

The sun'll come out

Tomorrow

Bet your bottom dollar

That tomorrow

There'll be sun!

Unlike Little Orphan Annie, electric utilities in Florida are not quite ready to bet their bottom dollar on the sunshine that drives the solar power industry. But companies like Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light are starting to invest a few nickels.

Tampa Electric announced a deal on Monday to buy solar-generated electricity by 2011 from a planned 25-megawatt facility in Polk County.

Don't take this the wrong way. It's terrific that utilities long resistant to alternative energy sources are trying new things like solar and wind. But the inefficiencies, upfront costs and long return on investment of solar for large-scale use remain big hurdles. The deals cut by TECO Energy-owned Tampa Electric (read the details in James Thorner's story on page 6B) and others are test-stage experiments to see how solar works and how quickly these plants can be improved upon.

If we want to rely less on fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, bring it on.

There are smart reasons we're seeing Tampa Electric's agreement now to buy enough solar-driven electricity to power 3,400 homes. It comes on the heels of a same-sized plan last month by South Florida's FP&L to build its own 25-megawatt solar plant in DeSoto County near the town of Arcadia.

Both solar plants will help make Florida Gov. Charlie Crist happy. Tampa Electric and FP&L efforts to diversify their fuel sources for generating electricity will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it's no coincidence both solar plants in Florida are gaining traction less than two months after the arrival of an eco-friendly and incentive-offering White House.

St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Florida has not embraced solar power on the scale of Tampa Electric or FP&L. The utility's energy focus is to get its nuclear power plant in Levy County up and running by 2016 or so.

But Progress Energy does operate some smaller-scale solar projects with BP gas stations across central Florida and with 60-plus residential customers that have solar panels on their premises. Progress Energy buys back excess power generated by these solar panels. Overall, close to one megawatt of electricity is being generated from these projects.

Where Progress Energy is making strides is in a brand-new collaboration, announced Monday, with the University of South Florida's Power Center for Utility Explorations. The utility and USF were picked by Florida's Energy and Climate Commission to build a "comprehensive smart electricity grid" to serve at least 5,000 customers on the west side of St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.

The three-year, $15 million project will tap sources such as solar power and biodiesel fuel to feed the electrical power supply for the neighborhoods. The grid's goal: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create a power supply adaptable to energy demands, and empower customers with pricing information to let them decide how and when they use electricity.

It's all promising. We'll track this stuff and see if it's real or window dressing. Bet your bottom dollar.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Utilities slowly turn to the sun 03/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 12:29am]
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