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DeSoto building solar facility, while Manatee still talking

MANATEE — Construction on the first large-scale solar generating facility ever proposed in Manatee County is pending for now, awaiting legislative and regulatory approvals.

But a solar-powered facility in neighboring DeSoto County — the nation’s largest photovoltaic plant — is under construction in Arcadia, slated for completion before the end of the year, according to Florida Power & Light officials.

“It’s scheduled to be completed this year, although we’re ahead of schedule,” said Mayco Villafana, a spokesman for the company.

Photovoltaic technology generates electricity directly from sunlight via an electronic process that occurs naturally in certain types of material, according to FPL.

The two projects, and others like them, may bring a glimpse of a bright future in which residents reap some of their electricity from Florida’s year-round bounty of intense sunlight.

Because solar facilities do not burn fossil fuels, they produce no “greenhouse gases” that contribute to global warming.

In February, FPL broke ground on its DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, Florida’s first commercial solar energy facility.

Once the $173.5 million center is completed in the next few months, it will produce 25 megawatts of electricity annually, according to FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson.

The plant will save more than 600 barrels of oil and 41 billion cubic feet of natural gas over its lifetime, Anderson said. It will also reduce emissions by 2.75 million tons of greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent of taking 18,700 cars off the road each year, she said.

Meanwhile, the company awaits legislative and regulatory action before construction can start in Manatee County.

FPL has proposed a solar thermal facility at an existing plant at 19050 S.R. 62, just outside Parrish.

“Right now, we’re looking for continued support from the legislature. We can’t move forward until we have that,” Anderson said Tuesday. “Basically, we’re looking for their approval and support for additional solar energy projects.”

Manatee’s facility would not add generating capacity to the existing plant, officials said. Rather, using free solar energy would cut down the amount of fossil fuel the company must buy, and thus it could operate more economically, they said.

“Anytime you can use solar energy, you’re offsetting fossil fuels,” said Villafana.

Under project plans, mirror-like concave reflectors would gather heat from the sun’s rays, which would then be converted to steam to produce electricity in existing turbines, an FPL manager explained in January when the company first proposed the project.

The project called for three solar energy thermal fields and a solar steam generation building on FPL’s property, according to county records.

In March, the county commission approved FPL’s request to rezone 620 acres of the 883-acre total project. It changed the parcel’s zoning from “A, general agriculture,” to “PDPI, Planned Development Public Interest,” records said.

Since then, there has been no more Planning Commission activity, according to county records.

Approval of site plans is necessary before the company may seek building permits, a county official said.

Solar is not the only non-fossil fuel Florida power companies are pursuing.

On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, serving as the Siting Board, unanimously approved Progress Energy Florida’s site request for construction of a nuclear facility on a 3,105-acre location in Levy County.

The Levy Nuclear Plant is the first nuclear facility approved in Florida since 1976.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908.

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