Florida Company Continues Its Solar Revolution Path
The facility, to be called the Trailside Solar Energy Center, will be located at the intersection of State Road 207 and County Road 305. The plan has been approved by the county, but ground has not yet been broken.
The Record recently took a tour of the FPL solar farm in Putnam County, which will look and operate almost identically to the one in St. Johns County. The site is one of about 10 expected to go live by early 2020. FPL already operates 18 major solar energy plants and more than 200 smaller installations across Florida.
Here, in a corner of Interlachen, rows of aluminum piles stand at attention like soldiers in formation. The piles are driven 8 or 10 feet into the ground without the need for concrete. On top of that foundation sit brackets that form a racking system on which the actual solar panels will be hung.
The Putnam County project is a fixed-tilt system, meaning it automatically adjusts its position to follow the sun’s movement over the course of the day.
All the sites FPL chooses are virtually undeveloped and large acres of contiguous land. If they outlive their use, the parcels can easily be turned back into agricultural plots, and even when operational, they are still friendly to coexisting with wildlife and farm animals, even whole flocks of sheep.
“We look for properties that are flat and clean and near existing transmission lines,” Heiman said, gesturing across the construction site.
According to Eric Silagy, president and CEO of FPL, the company’s goal is to be the second-largest solar producer in the U.S. within three years. It is currently ranked eighth in the country.
“This is about being predictive, rather than reactive,” Silagy told community and business leaders at a meeting of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Council in August.
While solar power has been around for decades, it’s still an emerging market, particularly in the public sector.
“We have always felt like utilities could be doing more and just three or four years ago had been critical of FPL, Duke (Energy} and others,” Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in a phone interview with The Record.
Tennessee-based SACE is a nonprofit watchdog organization that promotes clean energy for the Southeast.
Smith, however, has changed his position on FPL, which he sees more recently taking the lead in renewable energy.
“To their credit, they announced in February their biggest commitment to solar of any other utility in the county,” Smith said. “This is a huge step, and that FPL is talking about such a large scale certainly got our attention.”
Solar is not just better for the environment, but it makes good business sense, too. Its production and delivery make it a more cost efficient a power source over the long term, both for consumers and providers.
When operational, the St. Johns County plant off S.R. 207 will generate 74.5 megawatts, or enough to power 15,000 homes.
Although it is the Sunshine State, even solar power in Florida is not 100 percent reliable, so FPL does use natural gas or nuclear energy to supplement its solar supply.
Around 90,000 of the nearly 300,000 panels have been installed since the project launched in the spring.
About 250 workers have been hired for the construction project, a majority from the Northeast Florida area. They are short-term hires for the most part since once the panels are up and running, it will take just one engineer to man the site, just one of the reasons solar is less expensive to deliver than other forms of energy.
A meteorological center measures the concentration of solar radiance, and if that number goes below a certain point, the levels can be adjusted remotely.
Smith said: “The market for solar has improved, its price point is lower and so now more than ever it should be a no-brainer that we are doing more of it.”
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