Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, announced Wednesday it plans to build three solar energy plants in Florida, including one that would be the biggest of its kind in the world.
The three plants in South and Central Florida will cost $688-million and represent the first commercial-scale renewable energy to be installed in the state. Combined they will be capable of generating enough electricity for 35,000 homes and businesses, which — while small — marks a big step up for solar technology.
FPL Group chairman and CEO Lewis Hay III made the announcement at a two-day state Climate Change Summit in Miami hosted by Gov. Charlie Crist. "Pending regulatory approval, FPL will build 110 megawatts of solar power right here in the Sunshine State, making Florida No. 2 in the nation for solar energy," Hay said.
Hay credited a new energy bill signed Wednesday by Crist "that put a supportive policy framework in place for solar power."
The governor opened his second climate summit saying now is the time "to define our next step forward" for the "green future of the Sunshine State."
FPL's solar plants are part of a seven-year plan announced by the company last September to install 300 megawatts of solar energy in Florida. "The announcement today is a little over one-third of that in less than one year," said FPL president Armando Olivera.
"We think that is pretty good," he added, saying that sites for all three plants had been selected and permits granted. Contracts for the solar technology are due to be signed in the next few days.
Construction of the plants should begin later this year, and the plants would become operational some time in 2009, he said.
The company is awaiting final approval by the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. "That's the only thing we are missing," he said.
The news was welcomed by clean energy activists who have long argued that utilities were not doing enough to invest in solar energy, the world's cleanest renewable energy source. In the past, utilities said Florida's skies were too cloudy to make solar power cost-effective as a reliable energy source, unlike the Southwest — where FPL Group already operates a big solar plant in the Mojave Desert.
Wednesday's news "needs to be applauded," said Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "By going to this kind of utility scale of production they are showing that solar does have potential in Florida, and that will drive cost down further."
FPL says it is has another five solar projects in the works in Florida. "The technology is improving almost daily," said Olivera. "It's becoming more cost-effective."
When carbon emissions begin to be penalized financially, as some governments already are doing, that would make emissions-free solar energy even more competitive, he added.
A 25-megawatt facility in De Soto County will be "the world's largest photovoltaic solar panel facility," the company says. A second 10-megawatt solar panel facility will be built at the Kennedy Space Center.
A larger 75-megawatt solar thermal facility will be built at FPL's existing Martin County plant, which runs on natural gas. By adding the new solar thermal technology, which uses intense heat from the sun to power steam turbines, the company hopes to create "the world's first hybrid energy center," allowing it to switch off its fossil-fuel gas-fired plant when there's enough sun.
Each sunrise will be the equivalent "of taking our foot off the gas pedal," Hay said.
FPL's solar plans may help offset the negative image of its much-vaunted Sunshine Energy Program, which charges customers a voluntary $9.75 monthly fee to help develop green energy.
Nearly 39,000 Florida Power & Light customers gave the company $11.4-million over four years to develop green energy, but a report this week by Florida's Public Service Commission shows most of the money went toward administrative and marketing costs.
The program "does not currently serve the interest of the program's participants," the report found.