ARCADIA — Florida Power and Light will have a big name at the ribbon cutting of their newest renewable energy venture.
President Barack Obama will visit Arcadia Tuesday morning for a speech and a tour of the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center.
The energy center is the largest solar photovoltaic plant in the country, producing 42,000 megawatt-hours or enough power to serve about 3,000 homes annually. Photovoltaic technology is the process of using solar cells for energy by converting solar energy — sunlight, including ultra violet radiation — directly into electricity. Construction on the facility began in late 2008 and was completed earlier this month. The plant consists of more than 90,500 solar panels and will go live this week, according to Buck Martinez, senior director of project development for FPL.
“Timing is everything,” he said with a laugh. “Who would have thought the president would be out here to see this the week it goes live.”
Roosevelt Johnson, mayor of Arcadia, and a 19-year city council member, said the town is abuzz about the president’s visit.
“Individuals in town are very excited that the president is actually coming to town,” Johnson said. “The younger generations especially are expressing a lot of excitement about him coming.”
Over the next 30 years, the solar facility will prevent the emission of more than 575,000 tons of greenhouse gases. That is the equivalent of removing more than 4,500 cars from the road every year for the life of the project, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The project will decrease fossil-fuel usage by about 7 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 277,000 barrels of oil, according to Florida Power and Light.
“Solar energy can help Florida secure its energy future since it is not subject to oil supply disruptions or price volatility,” according to the site.
The energy center in Arcadia is one of three new commercial-scale, renewable, solar power plants FPL is building in Florida, along with solar energy centers in Martin County and at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Martinez said the Kennedy Space Center project will be operational by April 2010 and the Martin County project is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2010.
Together, these will have 110 megawatts of capacity by the end of 2010 and are expected to make Florida the second largest solar power-producing state in the country, according to FPL.
The solar projects “provide Florida with the opportunity to create and attract more clean-energy jobs and produce millions of dollars in new revenue for local governments while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fighting the effects of climate change,” said FPL Vice President and Chief Development Officer Eric Silagy in a statement. “FPL is proud to lead the development of clean, renewable solar energy in Florida, and we are positioned to build even more over the next two to three years if the state’s legislative and regulatory leaders continue to support solar energy.”
The plant was built in an area dominated by agricultural commerce, but that does not mean DeSoto County has not been working hard to draw other industries to the area. “Enterprise Zones,” established along key corridors in DeSoto County, offer tax incentives to companies that would establish themselves there.
“I think one of the main reasons Florida Power and Light chose to locate where they did — obviously, the solar field is a perfect merging with our agricultural base,” said Matt Holoman, spokesman for DeSoto County. “We like to think the county is attractive on its own, but we do have tax incentives for locating inside the enterprise zones.”
In DeSoto County, the plant is being hailed as a pacesetter for the state of Florida and for the nation.
“It does bring a good buzz to the county as far as the energy that it’s going to be bringing, as far as supplying energy to approximately 3,000 homes,” said Jan Schmitz, vice president of the DeSoto County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re looking forward to seeing more of this throughout the country. We’re really proud of having this.”
Schmitz said that, as Florida Power and Light has taken the lead with the help of DeSoto County, she hopes other agencies and local governments can follow that example.
Arcadia’s mayor said he hopes the plant will become a hub around which a learning center could grow. A plant to manufacture solar panels would be a perfect complement, Johnson said.
“My vision would be that solar plant being here, since it’s the first of its kind, actually building some type of a plant for manufacturing for people to get firsthand experience of how that plant works,” Johnson said. “I am excited, even as a citizen of DeSoto County, to help our energy system. It’s clean energy. We look forward to, hopefully, having a job increase as a result of that.”
Currently, 2 percent of energy in Florida comes from renewable energy sources, mostly from the state’s solid waste plants, according to Martinez. Gov. Charlie Crist has made it a priority to increase the percentage of renewable energy from 2 percent to 20 percent by 2020.
Legislation was passed to build facilities that would produce 110-megawatts of renewable energy, which FPL is doing with its three large-scale solar projects, Martinez said.
“But there’s a problem. It was one-time legislation,” he said.
Last year, Senate Bill 1154 sought to help that. The bill required that electric utilities meet or exceed specific standards for the production or purchase of clean energy, among other things. While the bill made it out of the Senate, it died when House leaders refused to let it come up for a vote.
“The state is hamstrung. There is nothing in place that allows us to go forward with new solar plants,” Martinez said. “There is no legislation that allows utilities to recover the costs on building new plants.”
Martinez said the DeSoto facility costs an FPL customer an extra 5 cents per month. He said that cost is small when one considers the possibility that thousands of jobs could come to Florida if the state were more willing to invest in renewable energy.
“We’re talking thousands of jobs. We can create a solar industry in the state that brings manufacturing jobs, research and development jobs. But those industries don’t want to come here now because there is no legislation for long-term certainty.”
DeSoto County has benefitted from the project, though job creation was short-term. The solar energy center provided around 400 jobs during the peak of construction but that’s dropped down to five jobs now that the plant is open and operational. The county received more than $2 million in additional property tax through the end of 2010.
Martinez said Obama’s visit to the DeSoto facility should change that.
“Hopefully, we can get the folks in Tallahassee to see the same vision,” he said. “From FPL’s point of view, there is nothing more important than fuel diversity and clean fuel.”