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President Obama visits solar energy plant in Arcadia

ARCADIA — Standing in rural Florida amid 180 acres of solar panels, President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced $3.4 billion in federal stimulus grants to modernize America's power grid and create jobs.

"At this moment, there's something big happening in America when it comes to creating a clean-energy economy," the president said while visiting the country's largest solar plant — Florida Power & Light's new DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center southeast of Tampa. "But getting there will take a few more days like this one, and more projects like this one."

Among the 100 projects receiving stimulus grants: $200 million for an FPL initiative to modernize its power grid, including transmission line improvements and more than 2 million "smart meters" that enable consumers to monitor and adjust their own power use and costs.

"Here in this region of Florida, this project will reduce demand for electricity by up to 20 percent during the hottest summer days that stress the grid and power plants," Obama said. "It will provide smart meters to 2.6 million more customers. And most importantly, it will create thousands of jobs — good jobs, by the way, that can't be outsourced; jobs that will last and jobs that pay a decent wage."

North Carolina-based Progress Energy also received a $200 million grant. A spokeswoman said details were unavailable Tuesday, but that it would be divided evenly between projects in Florida and North Carolina.

The grants were awarded to 100 utilities and businesses that in turn will spend another $4.7 billion in private money on the so-called "smart grid." The current grid system relies on century-old technology that the president said "wastes too much energy, it costs us too much money, and it's too susceptible to outages and blackouts."

Shirt sleeves rolled up, Obama arrived at the secluded Desoto County solar power farm by helicopter, after visiting the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville and raising money for Democrats in Miami on Monday. Before talking to invited guests, he wandered among the 90,000 solar panels with FPL chairman Lewis Hay, who was among several business leaders who had lunch with Obama at the White House earlier this month.

The vast fields of panels are tucked out of sight outside Arcadia, and utility officials said the $152 million facility generates enough power for about 3,000 homes. In reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the solar facility is estimated to be the equivalent of removing 4,500 cars from the roads every year.

Glowing praise from the president was a welcome change for FPL, which lately has been battered with negative publicity about its relationship with regulators and a request for a 30 percent rate increase.

"For the very first time, a large-scale solar power plant — the largest of its kind in the entire nation — will deliver electricity produced by the sun to the citizens of the Sunshine State. And I think it's about time," the president said.

Gov. Charlie Crist had made alternative energy and greenhouse gas reduction a top priority early in his tenure, but he steered clear of the president this week. Many conservatives are still fuming about Crist embracing Obama in Fort Myers in February and calling for the passage of the $787 billion stimulus package.

Times staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

President Obama visits solar energy plant in Arcadia 10/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 12:10am]

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