Duke Energy outlines major solar plans in Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Duke Energy plans to install up to 500 megawatts of utility-scale solar power in Florida over the next decade, doubling the amount now installed across the Sunshine State.

The announcement week comes as a diverse coalition seeking to allow Florida businesses and property owners to sell limited amounts of solar energy has taken another step toward getting its proposal on the 2016 ballot.

Stephen Smith, of the Floridians for Solar Choice coalition, on Friday called Duke's announcement "welcomed" yet "underwhelming."

Duke Energy Florida spokesman Sterling Ivey said the utility's plans and the coalition's proposed constitutional amendment are not related.

"As the cost for solar continues to decrease, we believe it is reasonable to consider solar as part of our long range program plan," Ivey said in an email Friday. "The long range program plan we filed this week projects customer usage and how we will meet customer demand over the next 10 years."

Duke Energy, which serves 1.7 million customers from Central Florida through parts of the Panhandle, expects to have the first five megawatts of solar energy added to its grid by the end of this year. Another 30 megawatts are to be available by 2018.

A release from Duke said the investment in solar will diversify the company's energy mix and provide customers with more options to use solar.

The locations for the new solar facilities have not been set, nor have any costs been tied to the program, Ivey said in the email.

"We are looking at company owned land where we can install the solar facilities and interconnect them with our current infrastructure to get real time data on how they work with the current electric grid," Ivey said.

In its release, Duke noted that the solar energy facilities will complement plans for a natural gas plant in Citrus County and upgrades at its Hines plant in Polk County that "will enable the company to meet a significant need for additional generation beginning in 2018 and to retire half of its Florida coal-fired fleet by that same year."

The 500-megawatt goal would more than double the 234 megawatts of solar energy currently installed across Florida, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group.

The current total places Florida 13th in the nation among the states for installed capacity, according to the association.

Meanwhile, Pensacola-based Gulf Power has announced plans to provide 120 megawatts of utility-scale solar power at three military bases in Northwest Florida.

Another 225 megawatts of utility-scale solar may be added to the state's grid over the next two years by Florida Power & Light, the state's largest power company.

FPL, which currently generates 110 megawatts of solar, announced in January plans that could result in large solar-power facilities in DeSoto, Charlotte and Manatee counties.

A single megawatt of solar is estimated by Duke as being equal to 200 typical residential rooftop systems.

The Floridians for Solar Choice coalition projects two megawatts would cover the daily use of a typical Wal-Mart.

Smith, who is also executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said power companies in Florida should be doing more.

"This is a classic strategy that we see the investor-owned utilities do," said Smith. "They put out a press statement. They talk about big numbers. But the numbers are way out into the future. They try to generate some good media. But unless you study what they're doing, you don't see most of this isn't going to happen until 2020 or beyond."

Smith added that both Georgia and North Carolina are expected to surpass 1,000-megawatts of solar within the next two years.

The coalition is awaiting Florida Supreme Court review of ballot language for the constitutional amendment it hopes to take to voters in 2016. It has submitted more than 80,000 valid petition signatures to the Florida Division of Elections, surpassing the total needed to trigger the court review.

In addition to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the coalition includes the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, the Christian Coalition of America, the Libertarian Party of Florida, the Republican Liberty Caucus of Tampa Bay and the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida.