Kitson, FPL unveil blueprint for largest solar plant
by ryan hiraki
A $300 million project expected to make Babcock Ranch the world’s first solar city could be under construction by the end of the year and would create about 400 jobs while attracting economic development to the region.
West Palm Beach developer Kitson & Partners and Florida Power & Light announced a partnership Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to build a 75-megawatt solar plant on 400 acres. The plant will generate all of the electricity for the planned town of 45,000 people in northeast Lee and southeast Charlotte counties.
The photovoltaic plant – one that converts the sun’s energy into electricity without the need for thermal energy – would top Germany’s 40-megawatt solar facility, the biggest to date.
"It’s a dream come true," said Syd Kitson, chairman of the development company. "I don’t know anybody else who’s doing it."
The plan could include rooftop solar panels on commercial buildings -although none on residential structures – to help generate electricity, and solar kiosks throughout the town to charge electric vehicles.
FPL will front the cost of the solar project and will collect the money over time because each of FPL’s 4.5 million customers could see an extra 27 cents to 31 cents added to his or her monthly bill, usually about $109 for using 1,000 kilowatts.
"This is a terrific opportunity for Southwest Florida to showcase its innovation," said Eric Silagy, chief development officer with FPL.
He believes Gov. Charlie Crist’s support for alternative energy could help FPL get the project under way by the end of the year.
It has the backing of environmentalists, too.
Representatives from Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund and the Sierra Club joined Kitson and Silagy to announce the plan.
Kate Johnson, the Sierra Club’s national clean energy representative, said the solar farm will not only reduce global warming but create green jobs.
"Babcock provides a vision of what the 21st century economy should look like," she said.
New jobs, new trend
Silagy said building the plant will require 400 workers, all of whom he expects will be employed through local contractors, an important perk in an area where the unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent and the building industry is the primary economic engine.
One contractor, Kraft Construction, is especially interested. Kraft is already helping Regenesis of California build a $17 million, 2-megawatt solar farm at Florida Gulf Coast University that will provide 16 to 18 percent of the school’s power.
"This county wasn’t built by waiting on people from other places in the country to come in and help us," said Ray Atkinson, a business developer with Kraft. "We’ve got the horsepower in the local community. We’ve gotta get ’em on the job before they move out of town."
This is not the only town FPL has targeted for solar technology.
The Babcock project falls in line with three others in Florida: a 75-megawatt plant in Martin County; a 25-megawatt plant in DeSoto County; and a 10-megawatt plant in Brevard County.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Palm Beach Gardens, whose district includes the Babcock area, praised the partnership between Kitson and FPL.
"It’s hard to imagine what the world is going to look like when the fossil fuels run out, but Babcock is going to give us that first look," Rooney said.
While only a half-dozen jobs will remain to run the solar facility once construction is done, Kitson hopes the project will be one of the first steps in diversifying a local economy so dependent on construction and tourism. Maybe, Kitson said, the innovation can help attract a company such as SunPower – the Northern California firm manufacturing the solar panels for Babcock – to locate a satellite office in the region.
"We’ve already started some conversations with solar companies," Kitson said, declining to name any. "A lot of it is overseas, and we need to bring it to America. The key is attracting companies that want to use Babcock as a living laboratory."
Follow the leaders
Without the solar plant, Babcock would get its energy from an FPL grid, typically powered by burning fossil fuels. The Babcock plant will avoid the emission of 61,000 tons of carbon each year and negate the need for 6 million barrels of oil over the life of the project, Silagy said.
Kitson said there would be no cost difference in electric bills or cost of the homes and buildings, no matter which power option he chose. And in the long run, the solar plant will fall in line with initiatives by President Barack Obama and Crist to reduce carbon emissions and make the state and the country more energy-efficient.
The U.S. Department of Energy was unable to determine whether the Babcock project would qualify for tax credits or any other incentive programs aimed at promoting alternative energy. But Silagy, who insists stimulus money will not help pay for the project, plans to explore every other type of federal assistance available.
"If there are tax benefits," he said, "we will obviously take advantage of that to lower the bill for Florida Power & Light’s customers."
BY THE NUMBERS
31 maximum increase, in cents, that Florida Power & Light’s 4.5 million customers will see in their monthly bills to cover the cost of the new plant.
75 megawatts the plant will produce.
400 acres the plant will cover.
19,500 homes the plant will serve.
6 million square feet of commercial and government space the plant will serve.
$300 million estimated cost of the plant.