Six Florida municipal utilities, including those in Orlando and Kissimmee, are joining the growing number of power companies able to provide their customers with solar power, a cleaner source of energy.
By the end of June, two of five new solar farm sites, the Harmony Solar Energy Center in St. Cloud and the Taylor Creek Solar Energy Center in east Orange County, are expected to begin commercial operation.
They are part of the Florida Municipal Solar Project, which consists of 16 electric utilities working together to create one of the largest municipal-backed solar projects in the United States, and for most of these cities, their first solar project.
The two sites will provide a clean, renewable energy source to six Florida cities: Orlando, Kissimmee, Ocala, Fort Pierce, Jacksonville Beach and Key West.
“This is one of the most economical ways to provide customers with clean energy,” said Ryan Dumas, a spokesman for the Florida Municipal Power Agency. “For many cities, they couldn’t do this on their own.”
The other three sites are projected to be operational by 2023. Nearly 1.5 million solar panels will be installed on about 2,450 acres, or about 1,856 football fields.
Winter Park, Mount Dora, New Smyrna Beach, Alachua, Bartow, Havana, Homestead, Lake Worth Beach, Newberry and Wauchula are all members of the project and will receive solar power from them.
The 285,000 solar panels at the Harmony solar farm look like a sea of black against the trees and wetlands that surround the site. The panels, which stand out against the tall grass around their bases, dwarf the workers that work on them.
According to FMPA, the cost of solar power from this project is one-third than of a typical private, rooftop solar system.
“Customers don’t have to pay to put solar panels on their roof,” Dumas said. “That’s the key, it’s affordable.”
The solar energy produced by these farms won’t go straight to the participating cities. Instead, it will go into the grid and where it will mix with conventional energy.
So there are no expensive upfront installation costs for private solar panels to pay.
Rooftop systems, however, deliver power directly to homes, which negates the need for costly power lines and substations and also does not incur a drop in voltage that occurs as electricity travels along power lines.
When all five solar farms are operational, they will generate nearly 375 megawatts, enough to power about 75,000 Florida homes. The 750-acre solar farm in St. Cloud will supply power to 15,000 Florida houses and will produce about 75 megawatts of power.
Stephen Heiman, a spokesperson for NextEra Energy, said a 74.5 megawatt solar farm costs about $90 million to $100 million to build.
The Orlando Utilities Commission will share 108.5 megawatts, or a little over twice the amount of Kissimmee Utility Authority’s share, of the power generated by the solar panels, the largest amount of power received by the 16 municipal utilities.
Sam Choi, OUC’s conservation and renewables manager, said the utility will be receiving 100% of the energy from the Taylor Creek Solar Energy Center.
For OUC, these solar farms will greatly increase its solar generation, from 15 megawatts to 108.5, Choi said.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar energy provided about 2% of total U.S. electricity in 2019. And the Solar Energy Industries Association industry group published a road map in 2019 that projects that solar power will make up 20 percent of U.S. power generation by 2030.
In a related development, on June 8, the nonprofit group Solar United Neighbors announced the launch of the 2020 Orlando Solar Co-op that will help city residents switch to the renewable energy, in addition to the construction of these plants.
The co-op is free to join and open to all homeowners and business owners in Orange County.
SUN has hosted 56 solar co-ops in Florida since 2015. According to estimates from the group, 1,706 homes and businesses now have solar panels because of the co-ops, and it has produced 16,000 kilowatts of solar power, $36.4 million in local solar spending and more than 546.8 million pounds of lifetime carbon offsets.
“As part of our city’s strategy to mitigate climate change, we’re kicking off the Orlando 2020 Solar Co-op,” said Orlando Mayor, Buddy Dyer, in a news release. “Solar co-ops are making a big impact to reduce emissions that influence our climate and the health and stability of our community … thank you for being a part of our community’s sustainability efforts.”
In tandem with the solar project, the co-op hopes to make cities greener and provide a source of renewable energy.
“We are helping our cities meet our customers expectations in an affordable way,” Dumas said. “They are contributing to a greener community.”
Credit: EVERITT ROSEN, Orlando Sentinel