Duke Energy-FAMU proposal could turn 800 Hernando County acres to solar farm

A deal would net hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the university and put the solar farm on its Brooksville agriculture research station.
Published January 24

BROOKSVILLE — It used to be that cattle lived on the 3,800 acres of agricultural research land spread across northern Hernando County. Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture sold the land to Florida A&M University in 2015, and there was talk of sustainable farming and grape growing.

Now, the Tallahassee-based university may lease 800 acres of that land to Duke Energy, and something new may rise in its fields: solar panels.

A proposed deal would let Duke build a 74.9-megawatt solar energy farm on a piece of the university's Brooksville Agricultural and Environmental Research Station.

The university's Board of Trustees will review the proposed lease Thursday and vote on it in March, said Fred Gainous, the station's executive director. If the board approves it, Duke could spend two years determining the project's feasibility and another two on construction before opening in 2023, according to a presentation for the board. Then it would pay the school $850 per usable acre — as much as $680,000 — with annual 2.5 percent increases.

The farm would be bordered to the north by Lake Lindsey Road and unpopulated county land, to the west by Daly Road and to the south by the Withlacoochee State Forest. More university land sits to the east.

Houses dot Daly Road across from the solar farm site.

Last fall, debate over a planned solar farm in Pasco County led to a lawsuit after neighbors argued it would constitute heavy industrial use and tarnish agricultural land. The Department of Agriculture has said solar farming is an agricultural use, according to the university presentation, and the Hernando County land is zoned for agriculture.

But Hernando County officials will get some say in whether the project moves forward.

Duke and the university would need the county to give the land a public service facility overlay, the additional zoning required for water treatment plants, gas lines and substations, said county planner Omar DePablo. And the project may require amending the county's comprehensive plan, but DePablo said he won't know for sure until he sees a proposal.

"As of now, I haven't got anything across my desk," he said.

An operating agreement committed the university to using the land for educating new farmers and ranchers, as well as research on agriculture and natural resources.

Assistant County Administrator Jeff Rogers said he thinks a deal between Duke and the university would benefit those living and working nearby.

"Down the line, it's a new (revenue) source for FAMU to provide new resources for their agricultural and environmental research station," he said. "That's a great service for our agricultural community."

Gainous said he couldn't talk in detail about the project until a deal is reached. Calls to representatives of the university and its board of trustees were not returned.

For Duke Energy, the farm would fit into a plan to build or acquire 700 megawatts of solar power facilities statewide by 2022, spokesperson Ana Gibbs said in an email.

DePablo said it's too early to tell what public response will be.

"No one could come out," he said, "or everybody in Hernando could come out."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.