TAMPA — The city's electric utility and international airport are teaming up to build one of the largest solar energy installations in the Tampa Bay region.
If successful, the project could spark even more bay area investment in solar power, a renewable energy source that has been slow to take off in the Sunshine State.
Tampa Electric Co. president Gordon Gillette said the lessons his utility would learn from installing 280,000 square feet of solar panels on top of Tampa International Airport's south economy parking garage would shape the company's plans for solar energy.
"This is a big investment for us in terms of learning," Gillette said.
The airport solar array is expected to generate 2 megawatts of power. The solar panels at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, which can generate up to 3.6 megawatts of electricity, are believed to be the largest locally.
A solar system built in 2012 at C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center generates 1.8 megawatts. A solar array under construction at Great Bay Distributors is expected to generate 1.5 megawatts. That's the largest private solar project in Florida, and it's expected to be finished by 2015.
Both of those projects are in Pinellas County. In Hillsborough, the Tampa Ikea store's solar panels generate 1.19 megawatts.
But the airport project would be the first large-scale solar project built by a utility in the bay area. It's also Tampa Electric's first major foray into solar power.
The utility's involvement is significant for the future of solar energy in Tampa Bay, said Scott McIntyre, whose company, Solar Energy Management, is building the system for Great Bay Distributors.
"I think it sort of raises the profile of solar," McIntyre said. "If a utility is willing to invest in solar, then obviously the numbers work, both on a municipal scale and on a commercial scale."
Tampa Electric generates 4,500 total megawatts of power, but 0.135 of that comes from solar. The airport project would generate 15 times as much energy as all of the utility's renewable energy portfolio combined.
"This is a big step," Gillette said.
He said the airport project would help the utility evaluate the feasibility and pricing of future solar projects. And it would help Tampa Electric decide what types of projects to pursue: urban solar installations, such as the TIA array, solar farms on open land, or home-based panels.
"I think a lot of the outstanding questions with renewable energy going forward is, how is it going to be best to deploy it?" Gillette said. "I think the numbers as we know them right now are telling us that it'll be cheaper to install facilities like this."
The pace of the utility's solar investment will speed up or slow down, he said, depending on the changing price of solar panels.
"This is a no-brainer," Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the airport's governing board, said of TIA's sustainability initiatives.
The estimated cost of the airport project is between $5 million and $6 million. Bids will go out soon, and Tampa Electric hopes to start and finish construction in 2015. If the project is successful, the size of the solar array could be expanded.
The utility would pay the airport $15,000 a year to lease the garage roof. The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the board that oversees TIA, will vote on the 25-year lease on Thursday.
The project would feed the electric grid and the utility's 700,000 customers, but would not directly power the airport. So it won't help TIA with its electric bill (the airport has budgeted $10.5 million a year for power). The solar panels will create more covered parking for TIA customers.
They must also be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Airport officials must make sure that reflections from the panels do not interfere with the eyesight of air traffic controllers or pilots landing from the south.
Tampa Electric's airport solar system will earn the utility a 30 percent tax credit from the federal government. State government offers no similar incentive.
In 2013, Florida fell to 18th in the country in new solar installations, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, even as national investment in sun power jumped.
The state has no policies to promote solar or renewable energy, said McIntyre, who is also president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy.
"We could have an entire industry here if we could just get state leaders to lead and get us an energy policy," he said. "Whether they like it or not, it's coming."
Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.
Editor's note: This story has been amended from an earlier version, which incorrectly said Tampa Electric Co.'s solar project with Tampa International Airport was the largest solar project in Tampa Bay.