Electric utilities seeing the numbers they need to switch on more solar
The route to FPL Coral Farms Solar Energy Center runs down a two-lane country road, turns at a weather-beaten sign advertising “Corn and Hay Sales,” and ambles down an unpaved road past a house with a tractor in the yard. There is the huge field filled with 330,000 gleaming solar panels.
The opening in January of the Coral Farms solar farm, located 18 miles from Palatka, and another Florida Power & Light solar center straddling the Putnam-Alachua county line makes Putnam County home to the largest collection of solar farms in Northeast Florida.
Duval County could soon overtake Putnam County for that distinction. JEA plans to team up with a private company for construction of five solar farms through 2020 that will collectively produce as much electricity as a small natural gas plant, turning JEA from a below-average utility in terms of solar power to a utility that is well above average for Florida, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
In a sign of how heated the solar industry is becoming, JEA’s decision to award a contract for the construction of those solar firms triggered a bid protest scheduled to be heard Wednesday.
JEA determined the top-ranked firm is groSolar/EDF, which is one of the largest renewable energy developers in the country. That selection is under challenge by the second-ranked firm Florida Renewable Partners, a NextEra Energy company.
The battle for JEA’s business comes at a time when utilities are deciding the price is right for solar power after the cost of the technology dropped dramatically over the past decade.
“They dip their toes in the water first because they don’t trust their own economics — it seems too good to be true,” said Bryan Jacob, solar program director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “When they realize it does meet their cost expectations and output and reliability and all the other criteria they’re interested in, then they go all in, and we’re starting to see that, not just in Florida.”
FPL, the state’s biggest electric utility and the third-largest in the nation, is in the midst of building solar farms that will end up adding 10 million solar panels at 38 solar plants from 2016 to 2023, enough to power about 400,000 homes.
Smaller utilities like Beaches Energy, which is owned by Jacksonville Beach and also serves Neptune Beach and Ponte Vedra, likewise are getting into the game. This month, Beaches Energy joined forces with 11 other municipal utilities to announce plans for 900,000 solar panels at three solar farms in Orange and Osceola counties. They would produce 223 megagwatts by 2020.
JEA, which is the state’s largest municipal utility, is going on its own for solar power. JEA currently generates 33 megawatts of solar power at six sites. Last October, the JEA board approved a plan for building 250 megawatts of solar power at five new solar farms. On a per-customer basis, JEA will have the fifth-highest growth rate for solar power among hundreds of utilities in a seven-state region tracked by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
The Coral Farms Solar Center in Putnam County offers a window into that future. Coral Farms produces 74.5 megawatts, so it’s somewhat bigger than the 50 megawatt solar farms that JEA will bring online at sites on the city’s Westside.
Brian Bergen, vice president of economic development for the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, said he welcomed FPL’s interest in building the solar farms.
“I was ecstatic,” he said as he joined other Putnam County leaders on a tour last week.