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Archive for April, 2011

Enthusiasm among Florida environmentalists for the utility scale solar projects constructed by Florida Power and Light is still running high.  These megawatt-size, pilot, photovoltaic and thermal plants in Desoto, Martin and Brevard counties follow several decades behind what California utilities have already accomplished.  Nevertheless, the Florida environmental community is happy to see the process started here where sunshine is also bountiful.  California will continue to “outshine” Florida in renewable energy because their legislators have made it legally binding.  Utilities there are currently pursuing a mandated renewable energy standard of 33% by 2020.  The huge, utility scale solar plants out there will be the major contributors to meeting the standard.  Is there anything Florida environmentalists can learn from the California pioneers?  With such a wide start, we now have time to review those California accomplishments and think about any issues we might want to avoid here in Florida.

As I mentioned, the utility scale projects out there are huge.  Consider that a 1000 megawatt concentrating solar thermal plant requires about 6000 acres for all the mirrors, tubes and boiler and a similar megawatt photovoltaic plant needs more than 12,000 acres of land to accommodate the big numbers of modestly powered solar arrays.  In contrast, a 1000 megawatt coal or nuclear plant takes up only 640 acres.  In California, they have a desert large enough to accommodate the big solar plants but environmentalists are objecting because specialized habitat for desert tortoises and other creatures is being disturbed.  Now utilities are applying to build on public lands.  Space for these solar plants is becoming a contentious issue.

Despite predictions by some climate scientists that droughts in Florida will be more severe in the future, we still have no deserts here.  Utilities will have to locate their solar farms on “green space.”  The FPL Desoto 25 megawatt PV plant is located on 180 acres.  If that plant would be expanded to just 300 megawatts, the size of a typical coal plant, the PV panels would cover 2160 acres of land.  An acre is about the size of a football field.  The plant is already fenced off to keep out all wildlife except birds.  Can we expect these  solar farms will ever be made compatible with biodiversity and wildlife?  If FPL decided to build a 300 megawatt PV plant where would they build it?  Will Florida utilities also apply to build on public lands when all their disturbed land is taken?

Solar installations distributed over a wide range of commercial and residential rooftops and backyards along with small power production facilities of 1-5 megawatts feeding the grid would provide balance to utility scale systems that might range from 25-40 MW constructed on already disturbed lands and in highway right-of-ways.  An energy plan that distributes power in this way would balance the need for clean energy with the need to retain green space on private and public lands.  It would avoid conflicts with expanding agricultural lands for bio crops.  But the legislation in Tallahassee getting the most attention now favors only utility scale solar installations.  Legislators and utility officials may eventually regret this approach if the Florida environmental community follows the lead of the California protesters.

   California Solar Farm

Sam Kendall

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Last year Boni let me know she was planning to install a solar system and so of course, I’ve been anxious to see it.  I’ve had the good pleasure to know Tom and Boni as members of the Audubon Chapter.  It was exciting to hear they were going to make their own personal commitment to clean energy.  My friend Pat has been visiting from Canada and we took a ride out to Lake County Saturday morning.  The home is on a sandy ridge near the Wekiva River.  It appeared that some spring cleaning was in progress when we arrived.

We started walking around the house and I noticed it was oriented east and west.  This indicated to me that her panels would be tilted up toward the south on the east side of the roof at the back.  First we saw Tom on a ladder cleaning out rain gutters and by his greeting we took it that he wasn’t happy about his assignment.  Then we were struck by the sight of the solar array, not on the roof, but right in the middle of the back yard!

Boni said with the east/west orientation it was just more practical to put the system on the ground.  By doing this she avoided tilting panels off the slope.  Ground mounting has the additional advantages of easier cleaning and if you ever need to replace the roof or shingles you won’t have to take down the PV system.  Of course, ground mounting isn’t practical in many locations.

This is a 4700 watt system with twenty panels.  You can see that it would make a good sail in a hurricane.  Her solar company made sure the array won’t lift off the ground by anchoring it to six foot deep concrete pylons.  A trench was dug to take the electricity around to the meter.  At the end of the first year there was a ninety dollar credit on the Progress Energy bill.  In other words, she and Tom are now living in a net zero energy home.  Congratulations!

Three companies offered bids on the system and it turned out that the company that had previously installed solar hot water got the contract.  Boni said she was fortunate last year to have a good income from teaching so she will be liable for enough tax to benefit from the thirty percent federal credit.  She was one of the unfortunate solar pioneers let down by the expiration of the state incentive funding.  Still, I don’t think the false promise from the state would have been enough to affect Boni’s determination to have solar.  She’s upset about the Gulf oil spill and the terrible nuclear accident in Japan and says events like these should get more people doing the right thing.  I hope she’s right.

 

Spanish Bayonet in the front yard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gopher Tortoise in the back yard.

 

 

 

 

Pat, whose son is presently living in Japan, is from Ontario, where a feed-in tariff is moving renewable energy into the marketplace.  She was in full agreement with Boni on the need to transition society away from the energy systems that threaten both human and environmental health.  But she thinks backyards are for gardens and wildlife and wondered whether the ground mount would meet aesthetic standards in some communities.  My opinion was just the opposite.  To me, the solar system was the focal point of the home; the central support system for a sustainable household.

Boni said in the future she may surround the system with some landscaping.  But right now, she’s satisfied to hose off the panels during spring cleaning and enjoy the free sunshine.

 

Sam Kendall

 

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