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FPL seeks OK for large solar plant in Martin, with 2 more in wings

June 3, 2008; Palm Beach Post; FPL seeks OK for large solar plant in Martin, with 2 more in wings; by Eve Samples.

STUART — Florida Power & Light Co. wants to aim about 180,000 mirrors at the skies above western Martin County, creating the largest solar-power plant outside of California.

The rows of steam-producing contraptions would span 500 acres and generate enough electricity to power up to 11,000 homes.

More significantly, though, they would signal the Sunshine State's arrival as a solar-power contender.

FPL will ask Martin County commissioners today to approve the 75-megawatt solar-thermal project, the first of its kind proposed for Florida.

It also is working to build two more solar projects around the state: a 25-megawatt photovoltaic plant north of Arcadia in DeSoto County and a 10-megawatt photovoltaic plant on land leased from NASA at the Kennedy Space Center. FPL revealed details of all three projects in a recent filing with the state's Public Service Commission.

Solar power, long disregarded in Florida because of cloudy weather and high costs, is gaining momentum as natural gas and oil prices surge and legislators consider limits on carbon emissions.

"It absolutely underscores what Florida's strength is, which is solar energy," Bob Reedy, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa, said of FPL's proposals.

The utility, which hopes to start building all three projects by the end of the year, is asking the PSC to let it recoup the estimated $688 million costs by increasing customers' bills.

The average customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours a month would pay about 83 cents more on each bill in 2011, when all three projects will have been in service a year. The amount would vary annually, and FPL expects monthly bills to increase an average of 31 cents each year between 2009 and 2033, according to the PSC filing.

"I don't think anybody's going to terminate service over that," Reedy said.

The hike is in addition to the 2 percent-a-month increase - about $2.51 a month - FPL proposed last month to cover the expansion of its two nuclear plants in Florida.

The Martin plant, dubbed the Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center, is planned for the Martin Power Plant south of State Road 710 and west of Indiantown. FPL owns 11,300 acres there. Power would be carried to customers over existing transmission lines.

If completed as planned in 2010, it would be the second-largest solar-power plant in the country and the largest solar-thermal energy generating plant in the world, according to FPL.

But at 75 megawatts, it would generate far less power than more conventional power plants. The new natural-gas plant FPL wants to build in Riviera Beach would produce 1,250 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 250,000 homes and businesses.

Solar-thermal energy generating systems use mirrored troughs to collect sunlight, which is concentrated on heat-collection elements. Fluid in the elements is heated to about 750 degrees, then used to create steam. In Martin County, that steam would be used to power FPL's existing gas-fired plant.

The country's largest solar-thermal project is the 310-megawatt Solar Electric Generating System, run by FPL Energy LLC, in California's Mojave Desert. Juno Beach-based FPL Group Inc. owns both Florida Power & Light and FPL Energy.

The Florida utility has been inspired by FPL Energy's success, and it wants to launch more renewable-energy projects in Florida, FPL President Armando Olivera said during a recent interview with the editorial board of The Palm Beach Post.

"Anything that has zero fuel cost is a good thing, even if it has a high initial capital cost," Olivera said.

Since FPL Energy is the world's biggest supplier of solar power, solar-energy proponents have been pushing for years to get Florida Power & Light to do more in the state.

"We like to see FPL locate their renewable energy systems here in Florida," said Colleen Kettles, treasurer of the Longwood-based Florida Renewable Energy Association.

Before the projects are a reality, FPL must get approval from the PSC. The utility also is working to chose vendors and write contracts.

FPL has talked with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Ausra Inc. about using its solar-thermal technology in Florida, but neither the utility or the company would say Monday if they were nearing a deal for the Martin County site.

"We're looking at multiple technologies," said Randy Clerihue, public affairs director for FPL.

John O'Donnell, executive vice president of Ausra, spoke generally about the rising interest in solar in Florida. These first FPL projects are designed to show that solar power can work in the state, he said.

Because Florida is cloudier, he estimated that the cost of solar electricity in the state will be about 30 percent more than in the Mojave Desert.

"Florida has a different climate ... so the systems have to prove, at least initially, their durability and their suitability for generation at times when there's cloud passage," he said.

The DeSoto plant would be the world's largest power plant that uses photovoltaic panels - also known as solar-cell technology - though several other contenders also are in the pipeline.

Projects have been proposed in Orange County and Lakeland and by the Florida Municipal Power Agency, which wants to scatter 100 megawatts of photovoltaic solar plants at locations around the state, Reedy said.

The largest photovoltaic plant operating in Florida is FPL's 250-kilowatt project in Sarasota, launched last year as part of the utility's green power program, Sunshine Energy. Enrolled customers pay about $10 more a month for such projects.

The DeSoto project would be about 100 times larger.

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