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Few Cloudy Skies Ahead For Solar Power At Florida's Utilities

The two biggest utilities in Florida - Duke Energy and the parent company of Florida Power and Light - have just announced they plan to cut their emissions by more than half by 2030. And North Carolina-based Duke wants to eliminate their carbon output by mid-century.  

TECO Energy hasn't gone that far yet. But the Tampa utility is branching out into one of the future paths of electrical generation in a converted citrus grove south of Lakeland. There, we go to the company's newest solar farm - and find out why sheep are a part of it.

The sun is hiding behind roiling clouds during a visit to a converted pasture just off U.S. 98, between Lakeland and Bartow. A storm pushing in from the west is not the most ideal setting for a visit to the latest front for getting clean, renewable energy from the sun.

The tour guide at the Lake Hancock solar facility is Paul Warren, senior manager of solar operations for Tampa Electric. Like TECO's parent company - Canada's Emera - he comes from a place not exactly known for its warming rays from above. Hints of Nova Scotia in his voice tell visitors he's not from Polk County.

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"We just finished commissioning in the spring of 2019. It came over into operations in May of this year, " he said. "It's about a 357-acre facility, and it puts out approximately 50 megawatts AC of power to a 69 KV (kilovolt) grid."

What that means is when the sun is shining, this place can power 7,500 homes. But on this day, the sun is nowhere to be found.

"Even though it's cloudy out, we will still get energy from this facility. You won't see the full output, but you will see energy because UV is coming through the clouds," Warren said. "And the photovoltaic needs ultraviolet to work, so we will get electricity out of it."

Warren says they get full energy out of this solar farm about a quarter of the time. That takes into account nights and rainy days.

We walk through ankle-high brush to see how the panels track the path of the sun.

"It's an electric-driven cylinder. You have your solar panel on top that collects energy, and that comes down to this power pack here, and that charges the lithium-ion battery," he said, as the cylinder makes a modest creaking sound as it moves the panels. "That's the sound of the trackers right there. And they know where in the sky the sun is, and it will send a signal out to tell them which degree of angle to drive the tracker to."

Tracker arms
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Paul Warren points out the tracker arm that adjusts the solar panels to follow the path of the sun

For years, Florida has trailed behind other states - and even northerly countries like Germany - in solar energy. One of the reasons given is even though we're called the Sunshine State, it rains a lot.

Things are finally changing. Susan Glickman of the advocacy group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says it all boils down to one thing: cost. The price for renewables is getting cheaper and could in the near future be less than natural gas.

"Adding utility-scale solar is essential to getting to where we need in Florida to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. So it's a good thing to see the utilities do more solar. In the long run, it's going to be cheaper, because you take out the fuel cost."

There was grumbling from environmental groups recently when TECO moved to convert two coal-fired units at its Big Bend power plant to natural gas - instead of using renewables. But spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs says the company is in the process of building 10 solar farms, that will generate 600 megawatts. That's enough to power 100,000 homes.

"When we're done with those 10 projects, six percent of the energy generated by our power plants will come from solar power. That's the highest percentage of any utility in Florida. And we definitely have more on the horizon," she said. "Technology in recent years has really improved, and the price has come down dramatically, making it much more price-competititve with other forms of electricity."

"When we're done with those 10 projects, six percent of the energy generated by our power plants will come from solar power. That's the highest percentage of any utility in Florida. And we definitely have more on the horizon." - TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs

Every major utility in the state is now building large-scale solar farms. The non-profit Smart Electric Power Alliance says Florida utilities more than doubled their solar capacity last year. Florida Power and Light, based in Palm Beach County, was ranked second in the nation for added solar capacity, with TECO coming in ninth. That's a sharp contrast to 2017, when no Florida utility was in the top 10.

In December, Duke hopes to bring two solar power facilities online. Those solar power plants are in Highlands and Gilchrist counties and will produce nearly 120 megawatts, enough to power more than 35,000 homes at peak production, according to a Duke release, which adds its goal is to produce 700 megawatts of solar production in the state through 2022.

The Solar Energy Industries Association is reporting Florida is currently the 2nd U.S. state projecting installation of solar capacity of nearly 5.5 gigawatts over the next five years.

Tampa Electric has also unveiled its Sun Select program, which is for people who support renewable energy but are unable to install solar panels on their homes or business. It works by including the utility's solar portion as its own line item on monthly bills. Tampa Electric then removes the fuel charge for the solar portion of your bill.

Sun Select participants lock in a solar rate. While this rate is slightly higher, the montly fuel charge is waived for that portion of the electricity customers use.

Back in the converted pasture in Polk County, Warren says all this high-technology is somewhat countered by a low-tech way of cutting the grass.

"By using sheep it actually reduces the cost for the customer. It also reduces emissions, because we're not using carbon fuels to mow the grass."

And Warren says there are few cloudy skies ahead for Florida's utilities.

Lake Hancock solar facility
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Dark skies above the Lake Hancock solar facility

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.