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Solar plant ground clearing begins at Florida Power and Light facility in Parrish

MANATEE -- When President Barack Obama traveled to Arcadia to commission Florida Power and Light's photovoltaic solar array in 2009, it was the largest facility of its kind in the United States.

Now, FPL is starting work on Manatee Solar Energy Center in Parrish, and two other photovoltaic solar arrays in Florida. The new solar facilities each will dwarf the Arcadia facility and require the installation of more than a million solar panels.

Cutting edge in 2009, the Arcadia facility had 90,000 solar panels on 180 acres and produced 25 megawatts, enough power for about 3,000 homes.

Obama likened the advent of solar to the interstate highway system that transformed America.

The planned 74.5-megawatt Parrish facility, to be located next to the Manatee Power Plant, 19050 State Road 62, will be a large-scale or grid-scale solar project, the most economical way to build solar, said FPL's Alys Daly.

Twice as much solar energy is produced per dollar for grid-scale solar compared to rooftop solar on individual homes, she said.

Ground clearing has started for the Parrish power plant, which will be built on 762 acres at 10870 John Corbett Road. The solar panels, with an anticipated delivery date in the spring, will cover 159 aces. The inverter boxes, which change direct current power produced by the solar panels into alternating household current, will require another five acres.

Phase I of construction is scheduled to begin this mont and be completed by November 2016.

As a regulated utility, FPL is required to generate power using the lowest possible cost.

To make the solar plants cost-effective, FPL has to "leverage multiple advantages," Daly said, including using sites it owns or has an affiliation with, and which are close to electricity transmission infrastructure.

FPL has also cited tax incentives provided by Manatee County for helping make the Parrish solar plant possible.

All three of the new FPL solar plants will be the same size. The other plants are the FPL Citrus Solar Energy Center, adjacent to the 2009 Arcadia plant, and the FPL Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center in Charlotte County.

"It's a small step in the right direction," Glenn Compton, director of environmental watchdog group Manasota-88, said of the introduction of more solar plants.

Other utilities working to introduce solar plants include Seminole Electric Cooperative, Duke Energy and TECO, he said.

"Those utilities in the process of building solar will have a competitive advantage over utilities not building solar plants," Compton said, including being able to trade carbon credits for existing fossil fuel plants.

"Solar is a safe, clean technology," he said.

Tim Heberlein, Beyond Coal Organizer for Sierra Club Florida, said the arrival of solar energy is good for improving air quality and fighting climate change, and for "helping usher in the era of clean energy."

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.