Will I-Drive solar panels help power a revolution in Florida?
By Kevin Spear, Sentinel Staff Writer
More than $7 million worth of solar panels officially went to work Wednesday on several acres of Orange County Convention Center rooftop, capable of generating a million watts of pollution-free electricity.
Attaching thousands of 3-by-5-foot solar panels to the giant center’s roof was meant to be jolting when first proposed. The system was to rank as one of the nation’s biggest and demonstrate how Florida could tackle global-warming and energy worries.
When rising costs briefly meant the International Drive center might get only 900,000 watts of solar power, officials promptly pumped more money into the venture. They wanted the more impressive title of a million-watt — or 1-megawatt — system.
But even as Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty flicked a ceremonial switch for the solar array Wednesday, the project had already fulfilled much of its promise. Since the start of this year, the Sunshine State has launched a solar revolution that will soon dwarf the convention-center project.
Led by the state’s electric utilities, the rush to install photovoltaic panels and concentrating mirrors has put Florida on a path out of the backwoods of solar energy to the No. 2 ranking among U.S. states, behind only solar-crazed California.
Among the projects taking shape: Florida Power & Light Co. will next week start to erect 11 megawatts’ worth of solar power at Kennedy Space Center, with the capability of serving about 1,100 homes and some of the NASA complex.
"We think solar makes a lot of sense on a lot of different levels," said Eric Silagy, FP&L’s chief development officer. "It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the environment and we think it’s very good for our customers."
Also in the works: Orlando Utilities Commission is in search of a partner to build a solar site in south Orange County that would put out as much as 10 megawatts. Jacksonville’s city-owned JEA electric utility plans a 15-megawatt solar site. TECO Energy, owner of Tampa Electric, is working on a 25-megawatt project in Polk County.
Still drop in power bucket
As impressive as all of those megawatts sound, Florida’s solar momentum still amounts to the earliest glimmer of a sunrise, adding up to less than 1 percent of the state’s electricity needs.
The Orange County Convention Center’s 5,808 solar panels can’t provide even 10 percent of the electricity consumed by the center’s sprawling I-Drive campus. And as Crotty and other county officials walked away from the ceremonial switch, rain clouds had cut the solar array’s output to one-tenth of its capability.
Such performance limits are why utilities view solar energy as only a part of their future power supply. FP&L, Progress Energy Florida, JEA, OUC and others are even more determined to bring on new nuclear power, which runs day and night, rain or shine.
But not everybody sees splitting atoms as essential. The Osceola County housing development Harmony has joined with Florida State University scientists and OUC to build a 5-megawatt system that harnesses the heat of the sun during the day and energy extracted from wood chips, grass and even algae at night.
"We’re going to learn a lot," said Jim Lentz, Harmony Development Co. chairman and a former OUC financial consultant.
Utilities partly justify their solar activities as searching for affordable responses to a coming era of government regulations that will be aimed at reducing power plants’ contributions to global warming.
Electricity made with solar panels still costs considerably more than watts generated by coal-burning plants.
FP&L’s Silagy said bringing on nearly 110 megawatts of solar power means utility customers will see their monthly bills go up an average of 31 cents each. But the next round of potential projects, which includes a 75-megawatt solar plant on the Babcock Ranch development in Southwest Florida, would likely add an additional monthly increase of 20cents or less, he said.
Solar proponents say the acceleration of solar activity in Florida is already leading to more competition, lower prices and better products.
"Previously, where I had a tough time with a couple of companies getting returned phone calls, now they are flying in and showing us real changes in performance and price," Silagy said of solar-related businesses.
Whether Florida jumps into second place among U.S. states for solar activity — it doesn’t even make the top 10 now — depends in large part on state lawmakers’ setting a standard for the amount of green energy utilities must use. Legislators failed to do that during their recent spring session.
Atlantic City beats Orlando
Meanwhile, other states aren’t idle. Crotty declared the new solar array, financed by the state, OUC and tourism taxes, as No.1 "in terms of our commitment to the environment." But it’s not nearly the biggest to be found on top of a convention center.
The Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority has outfitted its center with 13,486 solar panels that can pump out 2.4 megawatts. That system went into service in December.
"It’s really cool to see," said Elaine Zamansky, an authority spokeswoman.
Kevin Spear can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5062.