ARCADIA — President Barack Obama flipped the switch on green energy during a stop Tuesday in Arcadia.
Obama visited the opening of the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center to announce the largest single power grid modernization investment in U.S. history.
“We’ve got to do more than just add more extra solar megawatts to our electrical grid,” he said. “That’s because this grid, which is made up of everything from power lines to generators to the meters in your home, still runs on century-old technology. It wastes too much energy. It costs us too much money and it’s too susceptible to outages and blackouts.”
The $3.4 billion in government support for 100 projects that will modernize the power grid is part of the economic stimulus package and will be matched by industry funding for a total public-private investment of more than $8 billion.
That he made the announcement at the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center is also historic. The plant, which is owned and operated by Florida Power and Light and went live this week, is the nation’s largest solar photovoltaic plant and the second largest in the world. Photovoltaic technology is the process of using solar cells for energy by converting sunlight, including ultra violet radiation, directly into electricity.
Before making his announcement, Obama toured the solar plant, which has 180 acres of solar panels, separated into neat rows. The 90,504 silicon panels provide energy to 3,000 homes and are emission free, waste free and require no fuel or water to function, according to Kathy Salvador, FPL’s project development manager for the site.
“It’s quite unique,” she said about the project, which came in two months early and $22 million under the $150 million construction budget.
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. The project will decrease fossil-fuel usage by about 7 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 277,000 barrels of oil, according to FPL.
“With the flip of a switch, FP&L has moved the solar panels behind me into a position where they can catch the sun’s rays,” Obama said. “And for the first time, a large-scale solar power plant — the largest of its kind in the entire nation — will deliver the electricity produced by the sun to the citizens of the Sunshine State, and I think it’s about time.”
FPL hopes to expand its solar field in DeSoto County, Salvador said. The company can develop up to 5,000 acres for solar energy.
Obama, dressed in rolled up shirtsleeves and a red tie, said FPL should be commended for its work in Arcadia and its commitment to clean energy.
“This is an example of a company doing well by doing good,” he said. “And I think it’s a model of what we could duplicate all across the country.”
John Gnecco, director of project development for FPL, said the company recoups the cost of the solar field by adding 6.3 cents per month to customers’ bills. That cost, he said, was approved by the Florida Public Service Commission through the Florida Legislature.
Gnecco said he hopes the Legislature will approve more projects like the solar plant, but added that solar energy is not the ultimate solution.
“It is not a silver bullet,” he said. “It is one piece of an expansion project that has to include things like solar, nuclear, improving the fossil fuel technology. We do have to improve our overall efficiency. There are a bunch of things we can do to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases we produce. This is just one of those things.”
Obama compared his investment in green energy to President Dwight Eisenhower’s investment in the interstate highway system.
“It’s time to make the same kind of investment in the way our energy travels — to build a clean energy superhighway that can take the renewable power generated in places like DeSoto and deliver it to the American people in the most affordable and efficient way possible,” he said.
Obama said his proposal would create tens of thousands of new jobs and save consumers $20 billion on their energy bills over the next decade.
“And consumers don’t mind if they see their energy bills cut,” he said.
The Solar Energy Center in Arcadia was responsible for employing about 400 people during its construction, FPL officials said. Salvador said the center will employ two people now that it is fully operational.
For JoAnne Devries and Joan McKniff, Obama’s stop in DeSoto County brought one of his campaign promises full circle. The two Sarasota women volunteered for the Obama campaign, spurred on by promises like the one to stimulate the research and implementation of clean, renewable energy.
“It’s exciting to see the policy carried out,” McKniff, 68, said. “Arcadia is a small place and they really have the chance to be making history, state and national.”
Both women expressed excitement about the prospect of the project’s expansion, both within DeSoto County and around the rest of the state.
“The solar is just fabulous,” said Devries, 60. “And I hope Florida continues to do it throughout the state. I think that the fact that Obama is coming to recognize its importance is wonderful.”
With that, the women both boarded a bus that drove through the solar fields on its way to a site set up for the president’s address.
The rows of solar panels are lined up like some strange crop, stock-straight out of the sandy, rich soil accustomed to watermelon and citrus crop.
Along a road bordering the solar field, just beyond a line of trees, an orange grove mimics the orderly rows and perfect alignment of the solar panels.
“The birds are still chirping, there’s wildlife,” said McKniff. “It’s not an either-or situation. You can have both the farm land and the solar power.”
Carl Schwarz, site supervisor for the contractor that cleared and graded the land for Florida Power and Light, said his company assisted with serious mitigation efforts before clearing the land. They went through the 180 acres with environmental experts, flagging concerns and relocating protected species, such as gopher tortoises.
The project has been a surprisingly quiet one, too, said neighbor Joe Rice. Rice, who grew up in Naples, moved to DeSoto County with his wife at the start of this decade. Their land, which once faced thousands of acres of unused land, now backs up to a solar plant.
“Of course, I moved out here to be out of the path of progress and I’ve turned out to be right on the front door of it,” said Rice, 53.
But Rice praised the project, and said he is excited to see where it goes from here.
“I think our country needs some efforts like this to improve our overwhelming need for fossil fuel,” Rice said. “Like all projects, there is going to be a learning curve but I think the potential for growth here is good.”
And the potential to expand that growth to areas like his old home of Collier County looks even better, Rice thinks.
“I would think that people are going to look at it and see that it does have a good future,” said Rice. “The one thing about it is it is big; it does require a humongous amount of space.”
Arcadia Mayor Roosevelt Johnson said the president’s visit was an “awesome moment for the city of Arcadia.”
“It’s awesome to say we did this in little Arcadia,” he said. “It’s great to be able to say we have such a plant here that the president of the United States wants to come see it. ... It puts Arcadia on the map.”
Obama said he hopes that the plan for credits and the work being done at places like the solar plant allow the country to “begin to see what a clean energy future looks like.”
“We will get there with a few more days like this one and with more projects like this one,” he said.
The president added that clean energy is something everyone can get behind, whether Republican or Democrat. To his detractors, he said he understood change is difficult, but the country could look backwards or it could look forward.
“We know which side the American people fall on,” he said. “We have seen it in Arcadia and across the country. And I believe we will blaze such trails again. ... I am so excited by what you have done.”