FPL, U.S. utilities turning to solar as economics turn favorable


The U.S solar market is booming as Florida Power & Light Co. and other utilities rush to build more solar-powered plants.

In its biggest production year to date, the U.S. solar market added 14,626 megawatts of new solar photo-voltaic in 2016. That’s a 95 percent increase over 2015’s then record-breaking addition of 7,493 megawatts, the Solar Energy Industries Association says.

FPL, headquartered in Juno Beach, announced Monday that it plans to add 600 megawatts at eight new solar energy centers with more than 2.5 million solar panels by 2018, enough to power roughly 120,000 homes. It already operates more than 335 megawatts of solar generating capacity, which includes three plants that started up in December.

But solar accounts for less than 1 percent of FPL’s more than 25,000 megawatts of capacity. Close to 70 of its power is generated using natural gas, followed by nuclear at 22 percent, with less than 1 percent from oil and 2 percent from coal, with power purchased from the grid making up the rest.

Those percentages do not include the three new solar plants, said spokeswoman Alys Daly.

“We are in line with the country’s total solar generation, which is about 1 percent,” Daly said. “Very, very few states have more than 1 percent, and many that do have significantly higher bills and/or carbon emissions. We are proud to continue leading the advancement of affordable clean energy infrastructure.”

So, why the intense push to generate more solar-powered electricity?

“There are a number of reasons why solar is growing across the country, but the biggest is simple economics,” SEIA spokeswoman Alexandra Hobson said. “Solar prices continue to rapidly decline. For example, solar PV prices have dropped 17 percent in the last year and 53 percent over the last 5 years, making solar a cost-effective, reliable source of energy that’s leading to massive job growth in the U.S.”

Solar power produces electricity through solar cells known as photo-voltaic cells — “photo” for light and “voltaic” for energy.

Despite the growth, solar power is the source of a mere 0.6 percent of the nation’s electricity, with natural gas and coal, at 33 percent each, providing the bulk of it, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Solar energy received a lot of attention in the state last year, however.

In November, Florida voters said no to Amendment 1, a utility-backed amendment that would have made existing laws and regulations governing solar energy part of the state constitution, potentially paving the way for barriers to rooftop solar, opponents said. Its opponents said the measure’s wording was misleading, leading some voters to think it would be a way to advance solar energy in Florida.

The extension of federal solar tax credits has also played a role in the solar boom.

Legislation extending the Solar Investment Tax Credit was signed into law on Dec. 18, 2015. The bill extends the 30 percent Solar Investment Tax Credits for both residential and commercial projects through 2019, then drops the credit to 26 percent in 2020, and 22 percent in 2021 before dropping permanently to 10 percent for commercial projects and zero for residential projects.

Those tax incentives and cheaper panels have made solar energy price-competitive with natural gas plants, and that’s especially true for larger solar facilities, said Stephen Smith, executive director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy,

FPL’s $811 million rate increase that took effect Jan. 1 under a settlement agreement allows it to adjust base rates to accommodate up to 300 megawatts of new solar capacity per year through 2020. FPL can charge customers no more than $1750 per kilowatt to build the plants.

The Florida Public Service Commission must determine that each proposed solar project will be cost-effective — meaning the base rate impact is expected to be offset by fuel and other benefits so that the project produces a net savings for customers over its operating lifetime.

Smith, who has criticized FPL in the past for not doing more solar and depending so much on natural gas, especially from fracked sources, said the group is very happy and supportive of FPL’s plans to build more solar.

“It’s a cost-effective and clean choice. There is a real opportunity in Florida to continue to grow the market. We are very positive. In that context, we still believe that FPL is under-performing, even with the announcement of the 600 additional megawatts,” Smith said.

“They are bragging about the number of individual panels, which isn’t the way to look at this. What matters is how much energy they will generate,” Smith said. “They like to talk about millions of panels. Any time you have a big solar facility, you have lots of panels.”

The smaller Atlanta-based Georgia Power, for example, already has 1,000 megawatts of solar operating and is looking to add another 1,000, Smith said. Duke Energy in North Carolina has 2000 megawatts of solar in the ground and another 2,000 to 3,000 in the pipeline, Smith said.

The reason FPL’s solar plants are designed to produce no more than 74.5 megawatts is because they will come in under the 75 megawatt-threshold that would trigger the Power Plant Siting Act.

Not being subject to the siting act means that FPL can self-build the plants and doesn’t have to competitively bid the projects, Smith said.

“We are very pleased that FPL is building more solar, the question is, are they doing what is necessary to be a leader for their size, and the answer is no,” Smith said.

“When the sun comes up, it make no sense for us to be burning fossil fuels in this country. At night and when the weather is worse, you are going to have to use fossil fuels or whatever. We are getting to the point where solar is so cheap, it makes no sense not to build as much of it as we can,” Smith said.

In 2015, the United States generated about 4 trillion kilowatthours of electricity.

About 67 percent of the electricity generated was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum).

Other sources were:

Nuclear: 20 percent

Hydropower: 6 percent

Other renewables totaled 7 percent, with solar at 0.6 percent.

Source: Energy Information Administration



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