Proponents predict bright future for solar energy
By BRIAN NEILL
Proponents of solar energy say it’s a no-brainer that the Sunshine State should be a national leader in its creation.
But they just as quickly acknowledge that it may be a long slow path to become a solar energy state.
Things like politics, a lack of large expanses of land sometimes needed for solar panel farms, and human nature that is sometimes slow to adopt new things are all obstacles that stand in the way, they say.
Even so, the pursuit of solar could create nearly 100,000 jobs in Florida and attract solar panel and equipment manufacturers. That’s according to a study recently released by Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute.
Robert Weissert, spokesman for the organization, says it’s imperative that Florida move quickly to become a solar energy leader because other states like Michigan and Pennsylvania are already entering the business.
Florida does have some advantages over its competitors, Weissert says.
“Sunlight is a major one. Obviously, we’re going to win over Michigan,” he says. “But we also have the construction industry that can build these cells and put them up. It’s also something that our universities have been looking into.”
Florida Power & Light has been embarking on solar initiatives in a big way.
Last year, the Florida House passed a bill that allowed FPL to build facilities that provide 110 megawatts of solar power throughout the state and recoup the capital outlay from customers.
“So right now our customers are paying about 31 cents a month,” says FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson. “That’s less than the cost of a postage stamp that is allowing us to build these projects.”
Thousands recently turned out in Indiantown in Martin County to apply for the 1,100 jobs that will be needed to build a 75-megawatt solar-thermal FPL plant there. The plant will use solar energy to produce steam used to provide energy for about 26,000 homes.
Anderson described the plant as a hybrid that will link to an existing fossil fuel plant.
“So basically, when the sun is shining, we will be using less fuel to produce the same amount of power,” Anderson says. “Basically it’s offsetting the use of fossil fuels there.”
FPL also has broken ground on the DeSoto Next Generation Energy Center in Arcadia.
The 25-megawatt solar panel farm will provide enough energy to supply 3,000 homes or nearly 20 percent of DeSoto County’s population, according to FPL. The plant will prevent the emission of more than 575,000 tons of greenhouse gases over 30 years — the equivalent of removing 4,500 cars from the road each year.
FPL also will soon break ground on a 10-megawatt solar facility at Kennedy Space Center that is capable of serving about 2,600 homes.
Jim Fenton thinks these are big steps but says more needs to done.
Fenton is the director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida near Orlando, which was founded 32 years ago by the Florida Legislature to test and certify solar hot water heaters.
The center now researches solar technology and hopes to provide skilled workers for the solar industry in Florida when, and if, it takes hold.
He said more people should be willing to adopt alternative energy but says it’s hard to change old habits.
There are other factors, like a lack of readily available land and foot-dragging on the part of politicians, that have made bringing solar energy to the state a slow process.
Fenton has been watching the Legislature closely this year and is following a bill that would make solar more of a priority in the state.
The bill, the brainchild of Gov. Charlie Crist, would require utility companies to generate 20 percent of their power from nuclear or renewable energy by 2020. It passed the Senate on Thursday and is headed to the House.
“We are upbeat we will get something passed,” Fenton said.
Syd Kitson, chairman and chief executive officer of Kitson & Partners, a development firm based in Palm Beach Gardens, is banking on the future of solar energy. He hopes to break ground at the end of this year on a major development near Fort Myers that will be powered by solar energy.
Babcock Ranch will eventually have between 45,000 and 50,000 residents and is being designed as a “sustainable community.” The development has partnered with FPL to build a roughly $350 million, 75-megawatt solar system that will help power the community.
“We have to hook up to the grid because the technology is not there to store it yet,” Kitson said. “But we’ll always be generating more than we’re using, so we’ll be putting back in more than we’re taking out.”
Kitson said he hopes to have the solar system, which will occupy 400 acres, up and functional by the end of 2010.
He described the project as a win-win for the project and FP&L.
“Where else can you do your research on your products and have a city you can implement it in,” Kitson said. “So you have a pretty good situation.”