JEA eyes major solar expansion amid thorny debate
JEA is set to unveil a sweeping solar-power program Tuesday that would dramatically increase the utility’s investment in solar panels and at the same time change how it provides incentives to residents to adopt rooftop-solar technology, a thorny issue utility executives have tried to navigate for more than a year.
The plan also includes a proposal to replace an existing JEA policy — that nuclear technology will make up 30 percent of its power by 2030 — with a new goal that focuses instead on reaching 30 percent with zero-carbon and carbon-neutral projects. That could reflect re-positioning by JEA in the face of uncertainty at the Plant Vogtle project in Georgia, the troubled and only remaining nuclear-power project in the nation that JEA years ago agreed to invest in.
The most significant part of JEA’s plan — which the utility’s board of directors will weigh Tuesday — calls for a major expansion of solar panels: Executives want the green light and financing to create five new solar farms in Jacksonville. Each farm would produce 50 megawatts of power (one megawatt is enough to power about 400 homes).
That would put JEA on pace to reach just under 300 megawatts of its power produced by solar — about the equivalent of a small natural-gas power plant. On a day with high electricity use, JEA needs about 2,700 megawatts of power to keep the lights on in the city.
JEA estimates it would need about $50 million to buy property for the solar farms, most of which would be located on the Westside. The farms would be huge: About 400-500 acres each. As a point of reference, one square mile is 640 acres. A developer would build solar panels on the JEA-owned land, and the utility would buy the power, at a total cost of roughly $20 million per year for all five farms. The farms could be in operation as early as 2020.
The shift toward solar, as well as the loosening commitment to nuclear power, reflects not just the move toward green technology for environmental reasons. Changing forces in the power industry — the explosion in availability of natural gas and the falling price of renewable technology — are snuffing out coal and nuclear plants, which produce no carbon emissions but are enormously expensive and complicated construction projects to manage.
Steve McInall, JEA’s director of electric production resource planning, said solar is reaching the “grid parity point.” That’s a fancy term that essentially means “it makes sense financially” for JEA to expand its investment in solar technology based on the economics right now in the power industry.
The portion of JEA’s solar plan that is likely to get the most attention Tuesday is its proposal to change how it compensates rooftop-solar customers who return unused power back to the grid. The bottom line: JEA wants to reduce the rate for future customers from about 11 cents per kilowatt hour to the wholesale price of fuel on the open market. Right now, that is a little over 3 cents.
In the past, JEA’s proposed reduction has rankled rooftop-solar advocates who say cutting the compensation will kill the incentive for residents to convert to solar power.
JEA, however, is also proposing a new incentive Tuesday that it says keeps rooftop-solar technology an attractive option for customers who want to save money. The utility wants to offer customers a 30 percent rebate on the purchase of a battery system that can store a home’s excess solar power. The federal government also offers a 30 percent rebate on batteries, which JEA says generally would save a customer about $3,000.
A Tesla home-battery system costs a little more than $6,000, plus installation costs that can range from $800 to $2,000.