FPL Invests Into Its Push To Be A National Leader In Solar Power

On a cloudy Monday morning in late April, officials from Florida Power & Light Co. gathered in a field about a mile off State Road 31 deep in Charlotte County.

To reach that isolated road, which dead ends where a company holds eco tours, you had to drive down a series of two-lane highways, sharing space with big trucks and, at one point, the carcass of an alligator. The address said it was in Punta Gorda. But this was no beachfront community. And that’s exactly what Florida Power wanted.

Florida Power & Light has opened a new solar education center in Charlotte County (PHOTO CREDIT: Steffania Pifferi)

The FPL officials were there for the unveiling of Solar Ranch, a 2,500-square-foot solar power education center and three-story observation tower. The center, which opened to the public May 1 and is part of Babcock Ranch, has interactive exhibits and augmented reality with information on solar energy and battery storage. There is an electric vehicle Roblox-powered game that talks about the benefits of electric vehicles. And there are interactive exhibits highlighting native plants and animals found in the area and how they interact with the solar panels.

The company calls it an Eco Discovery Center, and that’s what it will be for those who are new to the technology or who see solar power just as panels on a rooftop. But, outside of the center, on the other side of a chain link fence, there is a working power generating station that is a part of FPL’s growing network of 65 solar centers, each producing 75 megawatts of power fed into the grid to be used statewide.

“These solar centers have saved customers $900 million in what was spent on fuel over the past 15 years,”  says Pam Rauch, FPL‘s vice president of external affairs and economic development. “Not only are we protecting Florida’s air and water, we’re saving our customers a lot of money, and we’re doing it in a much more resilient way. Solar is the most cost-efficient power generation we deliver to our customers. And so that is why we’re investing in it so heavily.”

Walking On Sunshine

And just how much is the company investing? In an earnings call last year, Kirk Crews, CFO of FPL’s parent, Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy, said the company expects to add roughly 3,100 megawatts of incremental solar through 2025 and to continue making capital investments in Florida of solar of between $32 billion to $34 billion. Of that, he told investors, the company expects to spend about $10 billion in new solar generation and about $14 billion to $16 billion in transmission and distribution infrastructure.

The day after the gathering in Charlotte County, Crews, in another earnings call, updated investors on the company’s progress.

“During the first quarter of the year, FPL put into service 1,640 megawatts of new solar power that put the solar portfolio at over 6,400 megawatts,” said Crews. “That makes it the largest utility-owned solar portfolio in the country.”

The company plans to increase FPL’s solar mix from approximately 6% of total generation in 2023 to 38% in 2033. Just as important is that it plans to double battery storage to more than four gigawatts. That is critical for the long-term success of solar, say company officials.

As it builds out facilities, Rauch says batteries are a vital link because they store the power generated by the solar panels allowing the technology to continue producing when there isn’t as much sunlight.

“Batteries are really going to be key to expanding solar energy so that solar energy will still provide energy to your homes on cloudy days, because they’re not generating as much power as when it’s sunny, and at night,” said Rauch.

Here Comes The Sun

Which gets us back to the road and why the solar center is so far out of the way. The solar station is part of Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre fully solar community that straddles Charlotte and Lee counties. And it is an example FPL uses of how a community can live and be fully sustainable using solar power.

Solar Ranch, a 2,500-square-foot education center and three-story observation tower, aims to teach the public about solar power and its benefits. (PHOTO CREDIT: Steffania Pifferi)

While most people imagine solar power as panels on a rooftop, the reality, in FPL’s case, is the wattage it creates through solar is fed into the grid, mixing with wattage created by other sources.

The savings is in the production because solar is cheaper to create than, say, a fuel-run plant. The customer’s savings comes when they sign up for a program that, according to the power company’s website, allows them to “receive monthly bill credits that increase every year for their share of the solar energy generated.”

The solar energy center in Punta Gorda, Florida Power’s first in Charlotte County, started operations in 2016, according to the company’s website. In 2020, the Babcock Preserve Solar Energy Center came on board. Combined, the two center solar energy centers feature 687,000 solar panels.

Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners and the founder of Babcock Ranch, says all the power generated by the panels on the property is directed from the power stations by electrical lines that travel straight to Babcock Ranch. That power is used within the community, with whatever is left over then fed back into the grid for anyone to use.

The process, obviously, is very complicated but the goal isn’t. What he and his company are after is a fully sustainable lifestyle, that it is both beneficial to the environment and to people. That it’s working is a message he wants to get out.

The new education center just shy of eight miles from the center of Founder’s Square, Babcock Ranch’s social center, will help explain how adopting solar can — and in Kitson’s view should — transform a community, allowing for the resources modern residents expect while minimizing its impact on the environment.

“What makes this so great,” Kitson says, “is that now people can understand what we’re doing and what it’s about and teach our young students that this is part of our future, and that we can successfully do something like this.”

Source: Business Observer