As growth dwindles, can FPL persuade Florida to bet on alternative sources of power?
By EVE SAMPLES, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The last time Florida Power & Light Co. built a power plant from scratch at a brand-new site, the country was reeling from an energy crisis. It was 1980, and fed-up Americans were eyeing wind and the sun as alternatives to fossil fuels.
As FPL opened the oil and gas plant in Martin County, the first solar plants were being envisioned in California. Windmills were sprouting around the country.
FPL’s building spree
West County Energy Center
Location: 220 acres north of Southern Boulevard, near Loxahatchee
Status:First of three combined cycle natural gas units will start producing power mid-summer; unit 2 will produce power in 2010; unit 3 in 2011
Cost: $1.2 billion for units 1 and 2; $864.7 million for unit 3
How it works: Natural gas is used to power a turbine, similar to a jet engine, which generates electricity. Hot exhaust from the natural gas turbine is used to make steam, which then powers another electrical turbine.
Each unit will serve about 250,000 homes and businesses.
FPL solar projects
• Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center
Location: About 8 miles west of Indiantown, south of State Road 710.
Size: About 500 acres
Technology: Solar thermal
Power generation: Up to 75 megawatts
• DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center
Location: About 10 miles north of Arcadia
Size: About 180 acres
Power generation: 25 megawatts
• Space Coast Next Generation Solar Energy Center
Location: On NASA property at the Kennedy Space Center
Size: About 60 acres
Power generation: 10 megawatts
But oil prices dropped before the movement caught on in the Sunshine State.
Now, as FPL starts generating power at the $2 billion West County Energy Center near Loxahatchee – its first at a new site in 29 years – large-scale power from the sun is finally gaining traction in Florida. And FPL is building solar plants in its home state, for the first time in the company’s 79-year history.
As the natural-gas fueled West County plant starts producing power this summer, FPL contractors will be assembling 90,000 photovoltaic panels to convert sunlight to electricity on 180 acres across the state near Arcadia.
The 75-megawatt plant, known as the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, is expected to be complete by October.
Next week, FPL is breaking ground on a similar 10-megawatt solar plant on NASA property: the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Energy Center.
And last month, thousands of workers applied for jobs building FPL’s Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center, a solar-thermal plant near Indiantown that will be the first of its kind. The 75-megawatt plant is set to open in 2010.
When all three plants are complete, they will generate 110 megawatts of grid-connected solar power – an amount FPL believes will make Florida the country’s second-largest producer of electricity from the sun, behind California. FPL’s total solar investment: $728.4 million.
FPL wants Florida to be No. 1, said Eric Silagy, the utility’s chief development officer.
It will have stiff competition from states such as New Jersey – now No. 2 – where progressive energy policies are spurring development of new solar plants, said Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C.
More than 7,800 megawatts of major solar projects are in the works around the country. Only 454 megawatts are operating now.
"The race is on, if you will, among the states," Hanis said.
The solar plants are a small but visible part of more than $20 billion worth of projects FPL is planning – even as customer growth is dwindling. Florida’s housing bust has stifled population growth and driven down electricity consumption.
A year ago, the state’s utility regulators probably wanted to know how quickly the new projects could go up, said Dave Parker, a Tampa-based utilities analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. Now, the picture looks very different.
"When you make plans for power policy, sometimes near-term trends for growth don’t always mirror what the long-term need would be," Parker said.
Help from Tallahassee needed
FPL is ready to build more solar. Plants are designed and ready to go, but the utility needs the Florida Legislature to act before it can build them and recover the costs from customers, Silagy said.
A law enacted last year allowed utilities to charge customers for 110 megawatts of solar projects, but FPL used all of that capacity with its first three plants.
"Unfortunately we don’t have permission to go for the next round yet," Silagy said. "The legislature didn’t pass any renewable legislation."
He isn’t the only one that’s frustrated.
Palm Beach Gardens-based businessman Syd Kitson wants to build the world’s first solar-powered city at the 17,000-acre Babcock Ranch development north of Fort Myers.
To pull it off, he needs to partner with FPL to build a $300 million-plus, 75-megawatt solar plant there – but lawmakers’ failure to pass a renewable energy bill this session means the solar city will be delayed, he said last week.
"It’s very disappointing, to say the least," Kitson said. "I really thought that the legislature would get together and be able to come to an agreement on something this important."
The failed energy bill – which was backed by power companies, environmentalists and Gov. Charlie Crist – would have required utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2020 and paved the way for new solar development. The Senate approved it, but the House never took it up before the regular session ended this month.
Two major solar companies want to set up shop in Babcock Ranch, but they won’t commit until the state takes action, Kitson said.
Silicon Valley-based SunPower Corp. (Nasdaq: SPWRA, SPWRB) also has said it wants to open a research and development center in Florida – but only if the state endorses more solar power.
The flurry of solar projects will position FPL to benefit if the federal government decides to start charging for carbon emissions – which looks increasingly likely under President Obama.
At the same time, the utility is beginning to look more like its parent company, FPL Group Inc. (NYSE: FPL). The Juno Beach-based company is the country’s largest producer of wind and solar power, but its wind farms and solar panels are all outside of Florida.
Customers to pay the bill
Though solar power is an expanding part of Florida Power & Light’s agenda, the three new plants will generate far less power than conventional sources.
After the three natural-gas units at West County Energy Center are complete in 2011, they will produce 3,750 megawatts of power – 34 times as much electricity as all three solar plants combined.
Natural gas continues to account for more than half the utility’s fuel mix. With that in mind, FPL in April proposed building a $1.5 billion pipeline that would shuttle the fuel 300 miles from Palm Beach County to Bradford County in north central Florida.
And, like utilities around the country, FPL is planning new nuclear projects. It’s spending $1.4 billion to update its four nuclear reactors in St. Lucie and Miami-Dade counties, adding about 200 megawatts of capacity at each site.
At the end of June, the company will submit an application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build two new nuclear reactors at the Turkey Point plant south of Miami. Review is expected to take 42 months.
FPL customers will pay the bill for all of the projects.
In January, a customer with a 1,000-kilowatt bill started paying $2.51 a month more to cover FPL’s nuclear projects. The solar plants will add another 31 cents, and the same bill would jump another $1.43 when West County’s first unit starts operating this summer.
But the costs are offset by fuel savings passed on to customers, said FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson.
"These are investments, and there are benefits," she said.