BALM — Tampa Electric will open one of four new solar projects planned for Hillsborough County next month, with a goal of generating enough electricity for 12,000 homes in the area.
TECO constructed its Balm Solar project on 548 acres in south Hillsborough County and will generate 74.4 megawatts of electricity through 700,300 solar panels. The $110 million project represents just a portion of $850 million the utility expects to invest in solar energy by 2021. In total, the investment will generate enough electricity to power 100,000 homes in Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco counties.
TECO serves more than 745,000 retail customers in Hills-borough and portions of Polk, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Last year, the utility pledged to build 600 megawatts of solar modules through a push for renewable energy as pricing for natural gas continues to be unsteady.
"Natural gas has a volatile pricing history," said Mark Ward, TECO's director of renewable energy. "Even though the pricing is good right now, it could swing and swing drastically."
Ward said adding solar energy to TECO's fleet will prevent future utility rates from rising because of an increase in fuel costs.
The project, however, will cost TECO customers an extra $1.85 each month to help offset construction costs. Regulators in May unanimously approved the rate hike, which will go into effect next month and run through December. The net increase on bills, according to TECO, will be closer to about $1 because of earlier fuel savings.
Last year, the Florida Public Service Commission approved an agreement that froze TECO's base rates until Jan. 1, 2022, but allowed the utility to recover the costs of added solar generation.
TECO officials say overall it will save customers about $3.3 million in fuel costs through the end of this year by tripling its solar energy generation.
Ward said so far neighbors of the Balm Solar project have given positive feedback about the facility. In March, the utility drew criticism from neighbors in northeast Pasco County for its proposal to put 470,000 solar panels on 350 acres of pasture land along Blanton Road. Residents at the time said they believed the project would take away from the area's tranquil atmosphere since the land has been granted rural protections under the county's comprehensive land-use plan.
"The feedback that we've gotten [on the Balm project] is that the residents nearby would rather see a solar project than a large development that results in more traffic and all the trappings that come with new developments," Ward said.
"These solar power plants have no emissions … no increase in traffic and there's no noise. So they're actually good neighbors," said Sylvia Vega, spokeswoman for TECO.
The TECO solar modules are built to track the sun until sunset, rather than other modules that are constructed to only face east, according to Ward. The modules, he said, are more efficient than rooftop solar panels made for individual homes.
A rooftop system may project 20 percent power on its peak day. We're doing about 26 to 27 percent," he said.
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TECO expects to open a second project next month — Payne Creek Solar — in Polk County on 500 acres of reclaimed phosphate-mining land that will generate 70.3 megawatts of electricity.
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