If you care about the environment and the "renewable/alternative" energy sector -- remember, that sector will be driven by INDUSTRY -- it has to be because government simply does not have the resources or technical expertise at the scale needed.
Florida utilities starting to soak up some rays
MIAMI -- The Sunshine State is getting serious about solar power.
From acres of photovoltaic cells in the state's southern tier to roof-mounted panels for water heaters in the Panhandle, Florida is experiencing a solar surge that rivals the recent wind power boom of the West.
This week, the state's largest utility, Florida Power & Light, helped Florida pass Arizona, Nevada and other sun-drenched states by announcing plans to spend $688 million building three new solar power plants capable of powering 35,000 homes.
"America's economy is driven by a fierce entrepreneurial spirit," Lewis Hay III, chairman and chief executive of FPL Group, told the Florida Conference on Global Climate Change here, where the utility unveiled the projects.
By committing to an aggressive renewable energy program, which also includes more than 5,400 megawatts of wind power capacity, FPL says it is putting its money where its mouth is on climate change.
"Tell a capitalist there's money to be made in finding cost-effective CO2 reductions and watch the market burst with cost-effective solutions," Hay said.
The solar wave also is also catching on with other Florida utilities. Pensacola-based Gulf Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co., recently announced it would offer customers $1,000 in incentives to install new solar-powered water heaters in homes and offices, and it is working to develop similar technology for apartments and condos.
Progress Energy, meanwhile, has partnered with BP gasoline retailers to install solar photovoltaic systems on 17 store canopies in the Orlando area, and it continues to install solar panels at Florida public schools under the state's SunSmart Schools program. The utility also has worked alongside the Florida Solar Energy Center and Palm Harbor Homes to study the feasibility of installing solar panels on manufactured homes.
And in central Florida, the Orlando Utilities Commission is working with state and county officials to install a 1-megawatt rooftop solar photovoltaic system on the roof of the Orange County Convention Center. The 200,000-square-foot setup will generate up to 1,500 megawatt-hours of electricity each year, the commission said.
Philip Fairey, deputy director of the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research arm of the University of Central Florida, said the recent surge in solar power interest, among both utilities and home and business owners, is borne of Gov. Charlie Crist's (R) commitment to put the state on a course toward cleaner energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
The new enthusiasm for renewable power contrasts sharply with the conventional wisdom of only a few years ago, when utilities in Florida dismissed solar development projects, saying they were not cost-effective and that Florida's frequent cloud cover would not support a robust solar power grid.
"The leadership changed," Fairey said. "I have to credit Charlie Crist, I really do. He has made this a point of very serious discussion at the highest levels. We now have utility companies aiming to do things that they never considered two years ago."
FPL faces criticism, questions
The new FPL solar projects demonstrate that sea-change in attitude. They are in keeping with the company's commitment, announced last September, to build 300 megawatts of solar power generation in its home state. FPL also operates the world's largest solar thermal field in California's Mojave Desert.
Construction on the three Florida plants should begin late this year, and they could be operating as soon as 2009, FPL said. The plants will be Florida's first commercial-scale renewable energy projects.
FPL has already acquired environmental permits for the three sites -- in Martin, DeSoto and Brevard counties -- but the projects must still be approved by the Florida Public Service Commission.
The PSC may have tough questions for the utility, however. The commission staff issued a report this week criticizing the utility's efforts on renewable power.
The Sunshine Energy Program has collected $11.4 million since 2004 from customers to foster clean energy development. But the PSC found less than a quarter of the money FPL collected went toward new clean energy projects. The bulk of the cash went to marketing and administrative expenses.
The report also criticized FPL for failing to deliver solar projects that benefit the broadest cross-section of its customers.
Recouping solar investment
With this week's announcement, FPL hopes to overcome such concerns. Indeed, no U.S. utility has proposed to build as much new solar capacity -- 110 megwatts -- in such a short period.
The Martin County plant would generate approximately 75 megawatts of solar power to help boost production at FPL's existing combined-cycle natural gas plant, officials said.
The other two solar plants, proposed for rural DeSoto County and a site at Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic Coast, would generate 25 megawatts and 10 megawatts of solar power, respectively, through the use of advanced photovoltaic cells.
As with any new power-generation project, and especially large-scale renewable energy efforts such as FPL's solar campuses, the cost of initial development remains high, and the utility will expect to take longer to recoup its investment than it would with a conventional fossil-fuel power plant.
FPL officials say they will work aggressively to market the new solar power, some of which could be sold to other utilities seeking to meet their own renewable energy goals. One such utility is neighboring Gulf Power, which last month issued a request for proposals to meet a 600-megawatt renewable energy mandate by 2014.
John Hutchinson, a spokesman for Gulf Power, said FPL did not submit a bid to provide any of the 600 megawatts. Nevertheless, Gulf Power could purchase solar energy from FPL in the future should it need renewable energy credits to meet additional state or federal mandates. The utilities do not share a direct transmission link, but FPL's electricity could be routed to Gulf Power through the broader Southern Co. grid, which extends into Georgia.
Gulf Power is unlikely, however, to follow FPL's lead in developing large-scale solar power plants within the state. "Our approach," Hutchinson said, "has been that solar is great as an end-use application, as a supplemental source of power for homes or businesses."