Special Reports

FPL waits for OK to build solar facility

PARRISH — When a new solar energy center opened last fall in DeSoto County, President Barack Obama was there to help christen it.

A similar facility has been proposed on Florida Power & Light property near Parrish, but it may be a while before invitations go out to the White House for its debut.

Although the Manatee County Commission recently approved land-use changes that could help advance plans for the county’s first large-scale commercial solar energy facility, FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson cautioned that the company awaits legislative changes that support expansion of solar facilities before it decides whether it should build here or not.

“It’s the way the rules are set up,” she said. “We can’t just build solar plants now without the legislative and regulatory framework in place.

“The Manatee plant is one of several sites across the state we are considering for new solar development,” she said. “Potential new solar projects like Manatee are contingent on legislation that would encourage further investment in renewable energy production in Florida.”

Construction would bring thousands of new jobs and more cutting-edge, commercial-scale solar power to Florida, she said.

In a preview for county commissioners last year, utility officials said they hoped to install hundreds of mirror-like reflectors to add solar generating capacity to an existing plant on the north side of State Road 62, east of U.S. 301.

Currently, the plant produces electricity by burning natural gas. Under the proposal, FPL would build a hybrid system in which concave reflectors would gather heat from the sun’s rays and convert it to steam that would produce electricity in existing turbines. The solar energy center would produce 75 megawatts of electricity, officials said.

With oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill blackening the Gulf, Gov. Charlie Crist has suggested a special session of the Florida Legislature to consider banning oil drilling, coupled with changes encouraging renewable energy.

But state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said a special session is unnecessary.

“Don’t let them tell you we’re holding them up,” said Bennett. “Legally, they’re able to start tomorrow morning.”

“What they want is to be able to recover their costs on a faster-than-normal basis, which puts basically the bulk of the cost of doing that to the ratepayers,” said Bennett.

“Right now, the general consensus is: Do we really want to have that additional burden on the ratepayers, with so many unemployed, so many scrambling to survive?” he said.

“It’s not a question of the state of Florida holding them up, it’s a question they’re not willing do it under the current cost recovery system,” Bennett said.

Last spring, Bennett filed a bill that would, among other things, require that the Florida Public Service Commission provide for full cost recovery for certain renewable energy projects, like it does for other types of power plants. The PSC decides how much money a utility may recoup from its customers in constructing a new generating facility. Right now, it requires the lowest-cost option for new plants; solar may be more expensive to build, but can be cheaper to operate over the long-term.

Anderson argued that the state should figure in cost savings over time.

“Look at the fuel savings over the life of the project, and it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels, which is relevant now because of the oil spill,” she said of proposed solar facilities.

Bennett’s bill failed in the Senate, but he continues to favor some sort of legislative encouragement for renewable energy.

“We’ve gotta do something,” he said. “The question is: What and how?”

Meanwhile, the county commission’s June 21 recommendation to allow FPL’s land in Parrish to be used for renewable energy technologies now goes to the state Department of Community Affairs for review.

FPL continues to operate its existing power plant on the site.

Florida’s energy policies frustrate state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, who has proposed a number of bills to try to jump-start renewable energy in The Sunshine State.

“That is the basic dilemma with alternative energy, compared to more traditional sources,” said Fitzgerald. “It does presently cost more to produce, although over the long haul, it probably costs less.

“The question is, how to encourage people to invest in it without raising prices on consumers.”