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Florida Sun Powers Largest US Solar Farm

Credits: ©2009 Liliane Parbot-Johnson / Gasparilla Gazette

Florida Power & Light's construction of the 25-megawatt DeSoto Solar Farm in Arcadia is expected to pay big alternative energy dividends. Germany leads in world solar energy production followed by Spain, Portugal and Japan. This could soon change, said Ed Smeloff of SunPower Corp., the California firm hired by FPL to create this first phase of its Solar Farm. SunPower operates about 500 solar systems worldwide. "I think the United States is going to, in the near future, pass up Spain," he said to some 50 people who had just returned from touring the solar plant near Arcadia. The $150 million plant came in $22.5 million under budget and took just 10 months to build - several months ahead of schedule. It can withstand 130-mph winds. The Nov. 3, 2009 tour was organized by the Charlotte County Economic Development Office and FPL for businesses leaders in green technologies as part of the two-day Green Futures Expo & Energy Options Conference.


DeSoto Solar Center Florida Solar Panels

The Desoto Solar Center in Florida has 92,000 panels that collect solar power. The $150 million plant came in $22.5 million under budget and took just 10 months to build - several months ahead of schedule. It can withstand 130-mph winds. ©2009 Gasparilla Gazette

The DeSoto Solar Farm is already producing enough solar electricity to serve more than 3,000 homes. The sun power eventually is sent to the grid where traditional electricity sources are stored, said Smeloff.

Fields of photovoltaic panels, visible on the tour, were similar to those seen on the roofs of some homes.

They catch the sun's rays and "excite the electrons," said plant manager John Granger.

Each of the 92,000 panels at the solar farm is 3-by-5-foot lined up 12 together for a length of 36 feet, and width of 5 feet. They look similar to a field covered with oversize picnic tables except for the tops, which are made of dark glass with shiny circles.

The panels move mechanically every 30 seconds to follow the sun's rays.

"They start at a 45-degree angle facing the east, and they are in the same position but are facing west at sundown," said FPL senior communications Jos Surez.

An electric wire goes from each panel into a central conduit to transform the solar electricity to alternative current used in homes. The power plant is mostly gas-operated with some nuclear energy and very little coal, said Surez.

The Solar Farm is built to last at least 30 years, and it will take from 25 to 30 years for FPL to recoup its investment, Surez said. It will eventually pay off because:

There is no fuel cost;

The plant does not consume water; and

There is little maintenance because rain cleans the panels;

The solar plant created 400 jobs at the height of construction for skilled labor, such as electrical, welding and steel work. The solar panels were made in the Philippines because U.S. photovoltaic panel manufacturers could not meet the demand, said Surez.

More construction could come in the future.

"We have to be ready to expand this site so DeSoto County will become an exporter (of electricity)," Surez said.

There is one drawback to solar energy production.

"With the power plant, we can control the output," Surez said. "With the solar plant, we have to take what it gives us. It depends on Mother Nature but the fuel is free."

Developing solar energy will take "leadership vision and government vision," said Surez, who drives an FPL car powered in part on electricity. The Toyota Prius has a device in the trunk, which allows him to plug into an electrical outlet to recharge the car's battery.

"I can go 35 miles on the battery," he said. "The time for solar is now and the time is now for Florida to be the leader."

The biggest maintenance cost for the Solar Farm operation is mowing grass around the panels, which are mounted on 14-foot long metal poles, half buried into the ground. A security fence is being erected all around the 300-acre Solar Farm because touching a panel could result in electrocution.

The solar plant is on land previously used for sod farmers and for grazing. Now, wetlands are restored, and there are retaining ponds to keep the solar panel area from flooding.

"It is in harmony with nature," Surez said. "Wildlife is coming back. Already, we have alligators, turtles and snakes."

Another reason to seek solar energy is fossil fuel is finite.

"One sure thing is that we are going to run out of fossil fuel," Surez said. "Whether it is in 50 or 500 years, it is going to happen."


Additional related article follows:
Florida Takes the Lead
by Colleen Castille 2009

No bragging, just fact.

Florida is leading the way to break our national dependence on foreign oil and build an economy based on clean, American-made energy.

As the former Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection under former Gov. Jeb Bush, I take pride in Florida's achievements on this front. In the last year of Bush's term we began to lay the groundwork for addressing Florida's climate and energy challenges, and Gov. Charlie Crist was smart to take up this mantle.

It's good for Florida, good for the country and good for our state's environment. As the world focused over the past two weeks on transforming our energy future during discussions in Copenhagen it is important to note that the vision of a clean, green Florida is a reality right now, even as we struggle to emerge from a steep economic slump. And our state can do even better if Congress passes the clean-energy legislation now in front of it.

Let me illustrate: You've heard about ethanol made from corn. But the future is cellulosic ethanol, made from grasses and nonfood crops like sorghum. And Florida -- not Iowa -- is in the lead.

Thanks in part to a generous grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and the Governor's Energy Office, the nation's first-ever cellulosic ethanol plant is being constructed in Highlands County. The factory will take crops grown right next door on 35,000 acres of Lykes Brothers farmland, and turn them into 36 million gallons of fuel every year.

The facility will create 140 high-paying, permanent, full-time jobs. And the company plans to build a second plant on the Gulf Coast, putting still more people to work. Florida's biofuel industry is developing clean, green jobs here in our state.

And it's not just biofuels. Better batteries will be crucial both to powering electric vehicles and to making wind and solar power more grid-friendly. Here, too, Florida is at the front of the crowd.

One of the world's leading makers of advanced batteries, Saft, chose Jacksonville as the site for a new plant. Where the Cecil Field military base used to stand, workers will manufacture cutting-edge lithium-ion batteries for use in planes and military vehicles. And to store solar power.

Saft expects to employ hundreds of workers at the new plant. Up against dozens of competitors, the Jacksonville plant won a $95 million federal stimulus grant for high-tech batteries.

Meanwhile, our own Florida Power & Light has finished building a solar-energy center in Arcadia, east of Sarasota. And not just any solar energy center -- the largest photovoltaic facility in the country.

During construction, the solar site has provided as many as 400 jobs in DeSoto County. And now that it's complete, FPL harnesses more than 90,000 photovoltaic panels to generate pollution-free electricity to more than 1,000 homes.

That's just one of three solar sites in the works at FPL. The company has 1,000 people building a solar thermal plant in Martin County, and FPL will create another 100 jobs at its planned plant at the Kennedy Space Center in 2010. When all are completed, FPL will have 110 megawatts of capacity in the state -- making Florida the second-biggest state in the country for solar energy.

What's behind this explosion in green entrepreneurship?

A lot of it has to do with the hard work and initiative of Florida business. And a lot of it comes from Crist's leadership. With help from his Action Team on Energy and Climate Change, Crist has fought to make his vision of a clean, prosperous Florida a reality. That's why among the businesses that are hiring in the midst of a recession, many are bright green.

How can we keep the momentum going -- and do even better? The Governor's Climate and Energy Action Team's top recommendation is that Florida should support a national clean-energy law, including a ceiling on carbon pollution. That's the smart tool we used to solve the acid-rain problem at a bargain price.

The U.S. House has passed H.R. 2454 to cap carbon emissions. Now the ball is in the Senate's court. This legislation will be good for Florida's environment and, just as important, good for our economy.

Florida has already started down the path to rebuilding our economy based on a clean-energy foundation. Now is the time for Florida's representatives in Washington to turbocharge Florida's green entrepreneurs by putting a price on carbon.

Colleen Castille is managing partner of Go Green Strategies, an environmental consulting firm in Tallahassee.


Florida Power & Light Alternative Energy

Desoto Solar Center Video Link

Florida Renewable Energy Association

Florida Solar Energy Center