Why Solar-Gas Partnerships Are Worth Exploring

OK. I’ll admit it. I’m torn on this one.

Idealism has its merits. Practicality, on the other hand, can be a bitter pill. But a bitter pill that allows you to grow in fits and starts — rather than the preferred leaps and bounds — is better than no pill at all.

Maybe this is the fork-in-the-road facing many supporters of the solar industry. They see the future, and it’s filled with clean energy, powered by abundant sunshine, and maintained around the clock by innovative storage systems. They live, however, in the present, and solar still has its skeptics — namely big utilities that like to have things run like clockwork in ways in which they can understand. To most, that means fossil fuels.

Of course, there are some utility giants, mostly in places like California and New Jersey, that have jumped into the solar game. They’ve done this mostly because their state governments told them to.

So it’s interesting when a place like Florida, which has no state renewable energy mandate, introduces a project as big as the recently completed 75 MW Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center by Florida Power & Light. The true solar innovation may not be the size or the location, but in the partnership. The world’s first hybrid plant of its kind combines solar with … gulp … natural gas.

It’s certainly more of an arranged marriage than a love affair. For the most part, though, it’s a relationship that’s been worth exploring. It certainly sounds like a good idea to companies like GE and eSolar, which are teaming for a hybrid plant in Turkey that will combine solar, wind and natural gas.

The reasoning is simple. Using natural gas will keep costs down in the short term, and it will allow the plant to compensate for dips in solar and wind resources. Maybe most importantly, the presence of the natural gas will give the project the financial stability to move forward. In the meantime, storage technology and falling prices of solar and wind can continue to make the gains that will eventually make renewables the most attractive option for utilities. Hybrids are one of many options on the table, and for purists to embrace the concept, maybe it’s best to think of them as a bridge and not a dead-end.

This approach of a short-term compromise is being done today in the auto industry. As good as electric vehicles have become, the most successful ones also guzzle some gas, and they’ve been doing so for some time now. While the Prius was dominating the headlines, the EV industry has been busy building a better battery. When the battery that is capable of bringing us on a Sunday drive and back finally hits the showrooms, the marketplace will already have been created.

It’s the same situation for the solar-gas alliance. It may not last forever, but it doesn’t have to.


Below is a video that shows the FP&L project, as well as some of the economic benefits.


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Steve Leone has been a journalist for more than 15 years and has worked for news organizations in Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia and California.

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