As far as national debates go, this one has a lot of mileage on it—and only relatively recently have those miles-per-gallon gotten good.
Virtually every day leading up to present day since at least the oil embargo of the 1970s, the country’s conversation over energy production has consumed a lot of energy. Fortunately, it’s also resulted in a lot of progress, as well as some reservations.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, for example, anticipates America becoming a net-energy exporter by 2020 thanks to the oil shale industry. Yet some fears over fracking, which makes this domestic production of crude oil, natural gas and liquified natural gas possible, persist. The Department of Energy is aiming for wind to comprise 20 percent of the nation’s total energy needs by 2030. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission cites “comprehensive and statistically sound estimates” of 140,000 to 500,000 migratory bird deaths per year due to turbine collisions.
With the Treasure Coast already home to five of the 18 solar power plants it operates around the state, FPL is readying its first photovoltaic solar facility for Martin County. It’s all part of its ambitious “30-by-30” plan to install 30 million new solar panels across Florida by 2030.
“Many Martin County residents are interested in alternative energy solutions for America,” says Ed Ciampi, chair of the Martin County Commission. “For many young people in general, this is what they expect of electricity-generation infrastructure for the future. This will give us a diversified power source so that we’re not going to be so reliant on fossil fuels, and offer Martin County ratepayers consistent rates so there shouldn’t be any shocking upticks.”
Sweetbay, sweet deal
Savings in energy and consumer costs motivate the expansion, says FPL spokesperson Stephen Heiman.
“FPL’s long-standing commitment to keeping bills low and generating clean energy for customers is the backbone of this expansion,” Heiman says.
Set to include more than 300,000 photovoltaic solar panels, the Sweetbay Solar Energy Center—the first photovoltaic solar facility in Martin County—will neighbor the Martin Next Generation Clean Energy Center, FPL’s 75-megawatt hybrid solar/natural gas facility in Indiantown. Upon completion, Heiman says Sweetbay will generate 74.5 megawatts of “clean, zero-emissions energy for FPL customers.”
“That’s the equivalent to the energy needs of approximately 15,000 homes,” he adds.
Martin County business leaders laud the FPL investment as a unicorn of economic development projects that well suits the local public’s priorities.
“It speaks volumes about what we have here in the way of economic development opportunities, especially in the fact that FPL is again electing to bring exciting innovations like this to our community,” says Joe Catrambone, president and CEO of the Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s the perfect fit for a community that’s so focused on protecting the natural environment,” says Ted Astolfi, executive director of the Economic Council. “It fits our economic goals as well as our environmental goals. It offers the opportunity for continued low-energy costs for our businesses and our residents, which is especially exciting for a community the size of ours.” Megawatts, mega savings
Sweetbay Solar Energy Center will join five FPL solar facilities currently in operation on the Treasure Coast. These include the aforementioned Martin Next Generation Clean Energy Center, the new Interstate Solar Energy Center, which joins the Loggerhead Solar Energy Center in St. Lucie County, and the Blue Cypress Solar Energy Center and Indian River Solar Energy Center, both in Indian River County. Together, these Treasure Coast facilities currently generate 373 megawatts of energy.
“The Treasure Coast is fortunate to have such a reliable, affordable electric provider that we can count on and that is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into our communities,” says Peter Tesch, president of the county’s Economic Development Council.
All told, its 18 solar plants, in conjunction with smaller FPL solar installations, provide approximately 1,250 megawatts statewide of universal solar capacity. That’s light-years (pardon the pun), beyond FPL’s first universal solar installation—a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic facility that was commissioned in Miami in 1984. (One megawatt is the equivalent of 1,000 kilowatts.)
The current goal to add 30 million more solar panels by 2030 is expected to provide 11,000 megawatts of solar capacity. FPL is complementing the effort by exploring ways to improve battery storage capabilities, Heiman says.
“FPL also will be making unprecedented investments in advanced and innovative battery storage technology,” he says, “that will extend the use of clean, affordable solar energy even after the sun has gone down.”
The solar expansion is an element of FPL’s suite of renewable energy-options and integral to its goal of generating as much as 40 percent of its electricity free from emissions by 2030. It’s an especially laudable goal considering Florida’s ranking as the third-most populous state at 21 million.
The effort earns praise from Gov. Ron DeSantis as an “important” initiative to “diversify our energy resources.”
All four FPL nuclear facilities operate without generating any emissions at all. The St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant and Turkey Point in Biscayne Bay recently underwent $3 billion in upgrades, adding more than 500 megawatts—or the equivalent of two million solar panels—in carbonless capacity.
A concerted effort by the company—launched in 2001—to replace oil-fired power plants with more efficient natural gas power plants reportedly reduced its reliance on foreign sources by as much as 99 percent. The company maintains that the moves saved customers nearly $10 billion in fuel costs and prevented the production of as many as 120 million tons of carbon emissions. The opening of its Okeechobee Clean Energy Center—which will operate on natural gas produced in the states—is set for later this year. It proceeds the FPL Dania Beach Clean Energy Center slated for 2022.
Sunny jobs forecast
David Powers owns Indiantown Realty with his brother, Kevin Powers. The sons of late Martin County Commissioner Timer Powers, who represented Indiantown, along with brother Brian Powers, remain active in Indiantown and committed to expanding opportunities for its residents. This latest investment is well received, David Powers says, for simple reasons.
“It’s just good, clean energy expanding on what’s already in Indiantown right now,” says the past president of the Indiantown Chamber of Commerce. “FPL has been a great partner to not only Indiantown but all of Martin County. Folks are excited for the clean energy aspect and keeping things green.”
Although county approvals are already secure, the dates when construction will begin remain unannounced, Heiman says. Typically, the process is completed with minimal delay, he adds, usually in anywhere from six to 10 months.
“Crews work very quickly,” he says, “and at peak construction install about 4,000 panels each day.”
The construction crews, which require laborers as well as specialized skills and qualifications, command about 200 to 250 workers, Heiman says.
A recent report by The Solar Foundation ranked Florida as second in the nation in 2018 behind California in solar employment. The solar sector of employment is projected to increase by 60 percent through 2026, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. So far, FPL’s solar expansion has created about 3,000 jobs since 2016, Heiman says.
“We strongly encourage our contractors to use local labor and other resources when possible and cost-effective,” he says. “We often work with local consultants and land planners as well, providing additional positive impact on local economies.”
That’s comforting to Indiantown Mayor Susan Thomas. Although the project is outside the boundaries of the newly incorporated village, which just celebrated its first anniversary in March, she’s already encouraged by how FPL conducted its community outreach.
“When FPL was going through the process of developing that site and developing the plan, the encouraging thing was they met with Indiantown and the neighborhood that was right next door to this project,” Thomas says. “I found that heartening and refreshing. The neighborhood next door is positive about it. They’re looking forward to it. It’s a win-win. If we get jobs, if FPL is able to produce cleaner energy, the neighborhood will benefit.”
Harold Jenkins understands the values and concerns of the fiercely independent village. The vice chair of the Martin County Commission shares county representation of the region with Ciampi.
“This is an area of the county where industry should be—and they’ve run up against some hurdles in the past,” Jenkins says. “Indiantown reminds us how important home rule is—especially as a region that’s so disconnected geographically from the coastal population.”
In the past, former county commission majorities rejected proposed projects that promised increased employment opportunities in the rural, largely working-class region, prompting Indiantown’s recent successful push for incorporation.
“What FPL is doing is not only good for the Indiantown community, it’s good for the county as a whole,” Jenkins adds. “It reminds that they’re more than able to draw good commercial investment. Solar technology is a huge opportunity with the vast amount of vacant agricultural land that’s out in this area. Making this happen in short order is a benefit to everybody.”