Rapid growth in solar power in Florida to continue in coming years – Naples Daily News

14 minutes, 42 seconds Read

A drive deep into the woods along an unpaved road in southern Palm Bay, suddenly and surprisingly leads to row upon row of solar panels.

There are more than 284,000 panels in all, sitting on 486 acres owned by Florida Power & Light Co., the nation’s largest electric utility.

A little farther down the road from the Palm Bay Solar Energy Center, FPL has a second one called the Ibis Solar Energy Center, which launched at the end of January. And, nearby, land has been reserved for a third one, the Fox Trail Solar Energy Center, which will open in early 2025.

These three solar centers — built on land that once supported citrus groves, and cattle and sod farms — are symbolic of the future of energy in Florida, where utilities seek a shift to renewable energy, and away from energy sources that have more volatile price swings.

James Handlowick, Ryan Jones and Dan Brankin, all part of the Florida Power & Light Co. solar team, walk past some of the roughly 200,000 panels at FPL's Ibis Solar Energy Center in south Palm Bay.

“Because of our growing solar investments, FPL has had to purchase less fuel, which means less cost that is passed on to customers,” said FPL spokesman Marshall Hastings.

FPL has 78 solar centers generating a total of about 5,700 megawatts of power in operation in 31 of Florida’s 67 counties, including 16 locations that opened in 2023 and 12 that opened this January. That’s enough energy to power more than 1.1 million homes.

Another 18 FPL solar centers are in the pipeline to open during the rest of 2024. FPL touts its solar projects operate without water or fuel — and leave the land around the solar panels available as habitats for native wildlife.

Still, solar currently accounts for just 6% of FPL’s energy mix, compared with about 70% for natural gas and 20% for nuclear. With more solar centers in the planning stage, FPL states in its latest 10-year forecast submitted to the Florida Public Service Commission that solar will increase to 35% of the company’s power generation by 2032.

The Juno Beach-based utility — which has about 5.8 million customer accounts and serves more than 12 million people in 43 Florida counties — already has the largest array of solar plants in the country. But it’s not the only utility investing in solar in the Sunshine State.

More players in solar

Duke Energy also has emerged as a major player in the solar sector, with 21 grid-tied solar projects in operation statewide.

“Our near-term solar generation portfolio represents over $2 billion of investment, about 1,500 megawatts of emission-free generation and approximately 5 million solar panels in Florida by mid-2024,” said Audrey Stasko, a company spokeswoman. “In Duke Energy Florida’s 10-year site plan, the company expects to have more than 4,500 megawatts of utility-scale solar generating capacity online by 2032.”

The plants are not cheap.

FPL says a typical 74.5-megawatt plant it builds costs $90 million to $100 million, including land and labor costs. But it is cheaper to run than a natural-gas plant, requiring no employees onsite and tapping a free power source from the sun.

A plant of that size — which takes nine to 12 months for FPL to build and encompasses 400 to 600 acres — can power about 15,000 homes. Typically, during the peak of construction, about 200 workers are involved in the project.

James Fenton, director of the Cocoa-based Florida Solar Energy Center, with some solar energy panels that are being tested at the complex.

Even with the high initial costs to bring a solar complex online, utilities are “just printing money” by increasing their use of solar, concludes James Fenton, director of the Cocoa-based Florida Solar Energy Center, which is administered by the University of Central Florida.

He said solar — which was a relatively expensive source of power for utilities as the technology was being improved before 2010 — now is “by far the cheapest.”

Additionally, with the non-competitive nature of utilities in Florida — each having its own geographic territory — coupled with the state’s strong population growth, a utility “gets more customers, whether they deserve them or not,” Fenton said.

Happy customer with solar

Carol Becker of Suntree has 53 solar panels on her roof. Her electric bill is less than $30 during some months, including the cost of charging two electric vehicles.

FPL customer Carol Becker, a resident of the Sawgrass at Suntree community north of Melbourne, is seeing that savings firsthand.

Becker, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, has 53 solar panels installed on her 2,400-square-foot home, and now typically pays less than $30 a month for electricity ― in effect, FPL’s minimum base charge for residential customers. The bill includes the cost of powering her two Tesla electric cars. That bill is down from an average of more than $215 a month before installing the solar panels.

“That saves us quite a bit of money,” said Becker, who figures she and her husband recouped their investment in the panels after six years. “I’ve personally had a very positive experience with solar. I would do it again, in a heartbeat. I love my solar.”

However, solar energy expert Troy Nguyen, a mechanical engineer and associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Civil Engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, warns that not every homeowner has benefited in the same way.

For some, “the return on investment isn’t all that attractive,” he said, taking 15 to 17 years to pay for the panels and related equipment for some single-family homes.

Nguyen ― who teaches courses at Florida Tech on “Renewable Energy & the Environment” and “Principles of Renewable Energy” ― said much depends on the government incentives and tax credits in place when the panels are installed.

Other factors can include the size of the home, how many panels are needed, the cost of the panels at the time of installation, and whether the homeowner paid cash for the panels or took out a loan.

Asked about the benefits of solar power, Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Tampa Electric, said it has saved her company’s customers about $200 million in fuel costs since 2017.

The company has 21 utility-scale solar projects that can produce 1,252 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 200,000 homes. By the end of 2026, it expects to have more than 1,600 megawatts of solar, giving it the power to serve an additional 60,000 homes.

“At that time, Tampa Electric will have about 17% of its energy generated by the sun ― the highest percentage of solar generation of any utility in the state,” Jacobs said.

As an added benefit, the company has saved more than 4.3 billion gallons of water by repurposing agricultural land for solar projects in its territory, she said. 

More customers investing in solar

Customers are increasingly making investments of their own in solar.

“Tampa Electric has more than 24,000 customers with their own solar panels, which has been on a consistent upward trend,” Jacobs said. “Growth is due to several factors, including cost, availability of panels and tax credits, among others.”

The utility serves a roughly 2,000-square-mile area in West Central Florida, including Hillsborough County and parts of Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties, with more than 800,000 customers.

FPL has been opening solar complexes since 2009, when it began operating its 25-megawatt DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, which is one of five large-scale solar installations FPL now has in DeSoto County.

Geoff West, director for FPL development in the company’s northeast and northwest Florida region, said he does not see a time when the utility will be 100% solar, adding that it’s important to have a diverse energy mix.

Asked to quantify how much individual customers save by having solar in FPL’s mix, Hastings said he couldn’t put a finger on it because “there are many factors that go into a customer’s bill, including the amount of energy they use, restoration costs for hurricanes and other charges.”

Through 2022, “the company has saved customers approximately $700 million in avoided fuel costs since we began investing in the technology, with approximately $375 million in savings in 2022 alone,” he said.

At the same time, FPL has reduced the use of oil and coal to less than a half-percent of its energy mix, and has made its natural gas plants more efficient. FPL plans to get coal out of its energy mix altogether by the end of the decade, and already has stopped operating its coal plants in Florida.

Solar projects are now typically 74.5 to 74.9 megawatts apiece, a size that allows utilities to work directly with local governments for approval, which generally speeds up the process. Projects of 75 megawatts or more must follow a state law for licensing large power plants. Regardless of the size of the project, it must undergo environmental review and permitting.

Today utilities are taking advantage of technology to make their solar centers more efficient. For example, FPL’s new Ibis center in Palm Bay has new solar panel technology that enables the panels to move throughout the day ― in effect, “following the sun” ― to maximize power generation. It also has two-sided panels to more effectively capture solar power. That helps FPL reduce the number of solar panels required at a solar center to produce the same amount of electricity.

Solar expands in many ways

Solar has expanded in many ways over the past two decades in Florida.

Universities and colleges have been part of the industry’s growing footprint in Florida, through installations of their own. Near Fort Myers, a 16-acre, 2-megawatt solar farm, with more than 10,000 panels, was built on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University in 2009, as part of its environmental sustainability mission, with half the cost funded by a state grant.

The solar field provides electricity to more than 200,000 square feet of space in three academic halls. It has reduced the university’s total reliance on FPL by 11%, while saving it about $700,000 a year in energy costs.

Others have followed in FGCU’s footsteps.

Florida International University in Miami, for example, has a 1.4-megawatt solar array with more than 4,400 solar panels at its Engineering Center, elevated above a section of the parking lot, and sporting its logo. Built in 2016, it’s run by students and faculty, in collaboration with FPL, and used for education and research on renewable energy.

Walt Disney World in Orlando has become a big player in solar, too, with recent expansions to its plants.

Job growth and increased tax revenue

The expansion of solar in Florida is creating jobs for the state’s residents, as well as generating tax revenue for its counties, cities and school districts.

The latest annual solar job census, released in July by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, shows that Florida had the second-highest number of solar jobs in the country, at 12,267, albeit a fraction of the 78,116 solar jobs in California.

The job growth in Florida — up 4.3% in 2022, from a year earlier — outpaced the national rate of 3.5%.

“The solar industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, overcoming one challenge after the next to provide a quarter-million jobs for Americans of all educational levels and backgrounds,” Larry Sherwood, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s president and CEO, said in his analysis of the census.

With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022 — which dramatically expanded the available tax credits, tax incentives and other funding for clean-energy projects, including solar — job growth is expected to swell in the years ahead.

A year into the act’s passage, independent groups estimated that more than 170,600 new clean-energy jobs already had been created for electricians, mechanics, construction workers, technicians and others across the country. Over the next decade, the law is projected to generate more than 1.5 million additional jobs in the sector nationwide.

Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, noted that more than half of all new solar jobs nationwide in 2022 did not require a bachelor’s degree, helping even more Americans launch their careers in the industry.

Industry data shows that the United States had its biggest year ever for solar installations in 2023, and that Florida was second only to California in new installations.

However, Michelle Davis, head of solar research at Wood Mackenzie and lead author of the U.S. Solar Market Insight report, cautions that “growth is expected to be slower starting in 2026, as various challenges like interconnection constraints become more acute. It’s critical that the industry continue to innovate to maximize the value that solar brings to an increasingly complex grid. Interconnection reform, regulatory modernization and increasing storage attachment rates will be key tools.”

Dana Blickley, the property appraiser in Brevard County — where FPL has six solar centers either in operation or planned — said the construction of solar projects generally boosts property tax revenue in the county where the projects are located, as the taxable value of the property increases.

In Palm Bay, for example, FPL’s solar installations generated more than $259,000 in additional property tax revenue for the 2023-24 tax year above the taxes from the agriculturally zone land surrounding the solar operations. That’s even though a state statute exempts 80% of the taxable value of the solar equipment from property taxes. The property tax revenue for Brevard, Palm Bay and the Brevard School District will rise even more as FPL installs more solar panels on the site.

FPL said its solar centers typically provide hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tax revenue to the counties in which they operate.

Palm Bay Mayor Rob Medina is excited about the expansion of solar projects in his city, saying that the solar facilities “not only generate clean energy, but spark economic vitality, showcasing Palm Bay’s role as a leader in innovation.”

Duke’s floating solar initiative

Duke Energy’s Florida subsidiary owns 10,500 megawatts of energy capacity, supplying electricity to 1.9 million residential, commercial and industrial customers across a 13,000-square-mile service area. It provides electricity in 36 counties.

Based on the company’s current fuel mix, each 74.9-megawatt solar facility displaces about 1.2 million cubic feet of natural gas, 15,000 barrels of fuel oil and 12,000 tons of coal each year.

In March, Duke Energy Florida, headquartered in St. Petersburg, started building its first floating solar array as a pilot project in Polk County. The almost-1-megawatt array will have more than 1,800 floating solar modules and span about 2 acres, built on top of an existing cooling pond at the company’s Hines Energy Complex in Bartow. A complete connection to the grid is anticipated in late-spring 2024.

“We believe solar and battery energy storage will play a significant role in how we deliver more diverse, clean energy to our Florida customers, now and into the future,” said Stasko, Duke’s spokeswoman.

The company now has six battery sites operating in Florida, totaling more than 50 megawatts. These sites store excess solar energy for later use, improving power reliability overall, and supporting critical services during power outages, helping to balance energy demand and manage intermittent resources, such as solar, Stasko said.

“We are working to island the batteries, which means they will be able to provide backup electric power at a later time,” she said.

Why not wind power?

Along with solar, a popular source of renewable energy is wind power. Total annual U.S. electricity generation from wind energy increased from about 6 billion kilowatt-hours in 2000 to about 380 billion kilowatt-hours in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2022, wind turbines were the source of about 10.2% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation — about three times the generation from solar.

However, Fenton at the Florida Solar Energy Center said wind is not an efficient energy source for Florida, because it is not steady or intense enough. Ideally, a steady wind of 20 mph would be what’s needed, he said.

According to the Energy Information Administration, good places for wind turbines are where the annual average wind speed is at least 9 mph for small wind turbines and 13 mph for utility-scale turbines. Favorable sites include the tops of smooth, rounded hills, open plains and water, and mountain gaps that funnel and intensify wind.

Wind speeds generally increase with increasing elevation above the earth’s surface. So, Florida’s mostly flat land is a drawback for wind power.

The Energy Information Administration reported that the five states with the most electricity generation from wind in 2022 were Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas and Illinois. These states combined produced about 57% of total U.S. wind electricity generation. Florida had no utility-scale wind electric generation that year.

Fenton, though, sees the possibility of offshore wind generation projects built off the Florida coast by the 2040s.

Graphic of solar installations.

Solar’s future in Florida

Florida placed seventh in a ranking by Forbes magazine of the best states for solar energy for 2024, behind California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Massachusetts and North Carolina. The study took into account six factors ― megawatts of solar installed, solar jobs, number of homes powered by solar, percentage of energy run by solar, clear weather days per year and average cost of solar panel installations for homes.

Data compiled by Forbes found that Florida was far behind many other states in percentage of energy generated by solar, at 5.3%, at the time of ranking. That, for example, compared to 27.3% in California, 22.9% in Nevada and 19.4% in Massachusetts. In all, 15 states ranked ahead of Florida in this category.

Even though Florida is called “the Sunshine State,” it’s not necessarily the best state to be in for solar energy. It’s generated more efficiently in Southern California and Arizona, where there is more direct radiation from the sun reaching the panels, compared with Florida, where the water molecules in the atmosphere from humidity scatter the solar radiation, noted Nguyen, the Florida Tech professor.

Graphic of residential solar installations.

It’s difficult to predict the future of solar in Florida “without a crystal ball,” he said.

“From a public relations perspective, it looks great to the public” for utilities to build more solar plants, he said, but “it’s all in the economics” ― whether power companies can generate powerful profits from the solar investment.

As you would expect, Fenton is a strong proponent of expanded solar power, as head of the nation’s largest and most active state-supported renewable energy and energy efficiency research institute.

“I’m upbeat about the future,” he said. “We’ve got to add solar like crazy.”

Dave Berman is business editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Berman at [email protected], on X at @bydaveberman and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dave.berman.54

Laura Layden is senior business reporter at the Naples Daily News. Contact Layden at [email protected]

This post was originally published on 3rd party site mentioned in the title of this site

Similar Posts