Richard Baillie, Contributor
April 26, 2012 | 0 Comments
New capacity also increasingly comes as centralised projects rather than distributed PV — another major structural change for U.S. utilities.
A recent survey by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) showed that in 2011 around 63% of new solar capacity in the U.S. came from utilities outside California, the largest percentage on record. Moreover, a total of seven of the year’s top 10 utilities were from outside California, and four of the top-ranking utilities were located in the east.
But not only is the geography changing — so is the very structure of the industry, with Florida again leading the way.
While traditional solar markets have relied on distributed PV for most new capacity, these days it is the centralised large-scale projects that are gaining traction. In 2010 alone, eight centralised projects greater than 10 MW each were installed.
Florida is now focusing closely on utility-owned or purchased solar power, as opposed to the smaller customer-owned, net-metered systems that have characterised the west coast market.
Already operational is the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in DeSoto County, which opened in late 2009 and has a nameplate capacity of 25 MW. The plant consists of over 90,000 solar panels across 235 acres (95 ha).
Following that development, Florida Power and Light (FPL) installed 87 MW in 2010, largely based on two projects – a 10 MW photovoltaic (PV) project at the Kennedy Space Center and a 75 MW hybrid concentrating solar power (CSP) plant at a combined-cycle natural gas plant across 500 acres (202 ha) north of West Palm Beach.
The US$476 million (€367 million) project, known as the Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center is essentially an experiment to determine whether conventional power generation can be married with significant solar power resources. What makes the plant noteworthy is that this is one of the few currently operating examples of a conventional plant being retrofitted with the latest solar technology on such a large scale.
The plant also serves as a real-life test bed as developers attempt to reduce the cost of solar power, which remains much more expensive than most other forms of electrical generation. FPL Group, the parent company of Florida Power and Light, expects to cut costs by about 20% compared with a typical stand-alone concentrating solar power facility, since it does not have to build a new steam turbine, new high-power transmission lines or other common infrastructure shared with the neighbouring gas-fired installation.
‘We’d love to tell you that solar power is as economic as fossil fuels, but the reality is that it is not,’ Lewis Hay III, FP&L’s chairman and chief executive, explained on a recent tour of the plant. ‘We have got to figure out ways to get costs down. As we saw with wind power, a lot has to do with scale,’ he added.
As always with solar, the importance of scale has to be put in context. Despite the size of the Martin Center its 75 MW — impressive for a solar facility — is nevertheless barely a drop in the ocean when compared with the adjacent gas plant, which can produce about 3800 MW.
Other larger-scale solar projects coming to fruition include Florida-based National Solar Power’s plan to build a 200 MW solar farm in Hardee County at a cost of around $700 million. Construction of this installation, which is due to begin in the second quarter of 2012, is expected to take six months for each of the 20 MW ‘modular’ plants.
This is the second project that National Power has announced in Florida. The company is planning an even bigger one in Gadsden County, a $1.5 billion, 400 MW project that will also consist of 20 smaller plants, each on a 200 acre (81 ha) site.
Similarly, and also in Florida, BlueChip Energy has broken ground on the 120 MW Sorrento Solar Farm in Lake County with Taiwan-based Neo Solar Power providing its high-efficiency solar modules in exchange for equity participation. Earlier this year, BlueChip also built a 1.2-MW phase of the Rinehart Solar Farm in Seminole County, the largest rooftop PV installation in the state of Florida to date.
Smaller-scale solar facilities have also been making inroads in Florida, but again these have been thwarted in many cases by legislative roadblocks. As things stand, a despite its wealth of solar resources, Florida lags behind virtually every other major state in its support of renewable energy.
Many states leverage federal clean energy tax credits and grants to help stimulate demand in their states through incentive programmes, but Florida’s rebate programme expired in June 2010 and there is no talk of reinstating it.
Part of the reason for Florida’s tardiness in implementing legislation that would benefit solar power development by utility groups is because a lot of debate in Florida has focused on attempts by FP&L to push legislation through the state senate, notably Senate Bill 2078. This would have provided Florida’s major power companies with more incentives to increase their solar portfolios by allowing them to pass the costs of constructing renewable energy plants on to their consumers.
But 2078 is also seen as a double-edged sword by the solar community, as it does not provide for any kind of feed-in tariff (FiT) by which power companies would buy power produced by smaller renewable companies.
Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says that more should be done to level the playing field. She said that in the twentieth century there was a drive for universal service, but that thinking is increasingly outdated.
‘We are in a different world; we have many different ways to provide energy. There’s so much energy efficiency opportunity out there that we don’t take advantage of because utilities are incentivised to build power plants, because they put that into their rate base and that’s how they make money.’
Glickman argues that the state should be at the forefront of developing renewables, but expresses concern that if Florida writes policies favouring giant utilities, it would drive away companies that innovate.
Despite the legislative hurdles, SEPA confirms that distributed solar is growing fast in Florida, albeit from a smaller base.
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