Here’s why Florida utilities are building lots of solar farms (2024)

I was in the Panhandle recently visiting family. On the long drive between Pensacola and Jacksonville, I noticed something that made me pull off the interstate and investigate.

Not far from the musical sign that marks the bridge over the Suwannee River, I encountered what looked to be a former farmer’s field. Now, it had sprouted a new crop: acre after acre of solar panels.

Here’s why Florida utilities are building lots of solar farms (1)

Maybe it’s because I’d been listening to classic rock on the car radio, but my first thought when I saw all those gleaming silver rectangles was a Beatles song: “Here Comes the Sun.”

Our duly elected doofuses have lately taken to sneering at clean energy sources. For instance, our fine Legislature voted to ban offshore windmills, even though nobody wants to build those near Florida.

That bill also deleted most mentions of climate change from state law (as if that will stop it). It prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to endorse a repeal of the state’s clean energy goals.

“Our energy bill that we did, it wasn’t about saying or not saying ‘climate change,’” DeSantis claimed, according to Politico. “It was a substantive piece of legislation to say that in the state of Florida our energy policy is going to be driven by affordability for Floridians and reliability. … We want low energy costs. And that means you’ve got to utilize things like natural gas.”

Low energy cost? Apparently, our Ivy League-educated governor missed the news that from 2020 to 2022, the price of U.S. natural gas more than doubled.

Roughly three-fourths of Florida’s power plants burn natural gas for fuel. That’s a major reason why Florida’s energy bills are the fourth highest in the nation.

You know what’s a cheaper source of energy than natural gas?

The sun.

“There’s no fuel cost,” said Jim Fenton, executive director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida. “It’s kind of like printing money.”

Most solar in the South

Whenever I have a question about solar power in Florida, I always call Fenton. He’s not only extremely knowledgeable about the industry, he’s as enthusiastic about it as I am about key lime pie. (Trust me, that is a high bar.)

I told him what I saw from the Lee exit off Interstate 10 in Madison County, and he said I was right. Solar farms are springing up across Florida like mushrooms after a hard rain.

“That’s pretty much all the utilities are building now,” he explained. “They’re building solar like crazy.”

I heard the same thing from Bryan Jacob, the solar power expert for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Florida has the most solar of any Southern state, and it’s one of the top three in the country,” he told me.

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The most solar in the South? And Dawn Shirreffs of the Environmental Defense Fund said she’s seen the same thing. She told me that one of the state’s major utilities is so invested in solar it “has no natural gas in its 10-year plan.” But she said Florida should be doing so much more.

“We could be making and exporting solar energy and it could be a huge economic driver, rather than importing natural gas from other states and paying for that,” Shirreffs said.

Still, what’s going on now marks a major turnaround for Florida, said Jacob. Just seven years ago, “Florida was not living up to its Sunshine State moniker. They have really come a long way.”

Florida’s utilities are now generating 9 gigawatts of solar power, he said. In case you see that sentence and say, “What the watt?” I will explain. A watt is a measure of power. There are 1 billion watts in 1 gigawatt. You can power about 750,000 homes with 1 gigawatt, so with 9 you can run nearly 7 million.

Not just the IRA

I assumed the reason for all this sun-worshipping construction work was the federal Inflation Reduction Act. It provides more than $369 billion in clean energy incentives — ironically, many in the districts of Republicans who voted against the law.

But Fenton and Jacob cited other factors too. Fenton, the UCF solar expert, told me it’s partly because of rules — or lack of them — from the Florida Public Service Commission, the little-known state agency that’s in charge of utility regulation.

“The PSC allows them to build 75-megawatt solar fields without first proving there’s a need for them,” he explained. “There’s a lot less paperwork that way, and the utilities can strategically place them wherever they can find cheap real estate.”

The farm I saw was Duke Energy’s Winquepin Renewable Energy Center, which was built on nearly 530 acres in Madison County. It uses its 220,000 solar panels to generate 74.9 megawatts per day — just a hair under 75. Duke says that’s producing enough emissions-free electricity to supply nearly 23,000 households.

Now multiply that by similarly sized solar farms in Santa Rosa County, Walton County, Calhoun County, Clay County, Suwanee County, Baker County, DeSoto County, Union County and so on. While building them requires hundreds of workers, they operate with a tiny staff, which saves money for the customers.

Fenton added that, while our state officials are turning their backs on clean energy and the battle against climate change, the state’s utilities are definitely not.

“They all have set sustainability goals,” he told me.

That’s a standard corporate practice these days, because such goals can lead to cost reductions, increased revenue and other good stuff for the stockholders.

Jacob, the solar power expert for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the utilities are pursuing sun power so hotly because it makes economic sense. They’re looking at the bottom line, not the horizon line.

“Public officials don’t embrace this agenda,” he said, “but so much of this is driven by market forces. The utilities have seen the costs decrease and the technology improve over the last five years.”

Chasing the sun

The utilities are happy to talk about their large investment in lots of little solar energy farms.

Florida Power & Light, for instance, has the largest array of solar plants in the country. It has opened 78 solar centers in Florida to generate about 5,700 megawatts of power for 31 of Florida’s 67 counties.

“Solar energy is the most cost-effective source of new power generation we can invest in on behalf of our customers, saving customers’ money by helping remove fuel costs from energy bills,” FPL spokesperson Chris Curtland told me. ”These investments have saved customers more than $900 million in avoided fuel costs since 2009, with more than $500 million in savings in the last two years.”

How dedicated is FPL to chasing the sun? Jacob said that after the company bought Gulf Power in the Panhandle, FPL built a 160-mile transmission line from North Florida to its main customers in South Florida. Now it can harvest the rays of the setting sun later in the afternoons and shoot the power down to millions of people who live where dusk has already settled in.

Duke Energy, owner of that site that I saw from I-10, “has built approximately 1,300 MW so far,” spokesperson Ana Gibbs told me. “We have 225 MW under construction.”

I was curious whether their solar panels were made in China, and the answer is an emphatic no. They’re manufactured by Arizona-based First Solar and Canadian Solar, which means they originate from the land of Mounties, moose and Molson beer, eh?

Duke, which had a not-so-great experience with a Florida nuclear plant, started building new solar farms in 2018, she said. You may recall that’s when the Palm Beach club owner who was president at the time kept nattering on about “beautiful, clean coal.” However, Duke was worried about the fluctuation of natural gas costs, and rightly so.

Gibbs pointed out exactly what Fenton did: Customers don’t have to pay a dime for fuel costs when the fuel comes from the rays of Ra.

Florida’s other, smaller utilities are equally avid in their pursuit of more solar capacity, say Fenton and Jacob. The only folks who don’t seem to be on board this electric train are our elected “leaders.”

Shady, not sunny

Five years ago, FPL sent out a news release that announced a “groundbreaking ‘30-by-30′ plan to install more than 30 million solar panels by 2030 (and) make Florida a world leader in solar energy.”

You won’t believe who was quoted in the news release. It was a newly elected governor named DeSantis. He was so pro-solar, he sounded positively — ohhhh, what’s that word for being aware of what’s going on in the world? Oh yeah — “woke.”

“I am supportive of programs that will provide Floridians with greater access to affordable, clean energy which will help propel the state to a healthier future,” he said then. “We live in the Sunshine State and solar energy is a natural resource that should be seriously considered. … As Florida’s energy needs continue to grow at a rapid pace, it is important that we diversify our energy resources.”

Since then, except for one brief but crucial 2022 veto of an FPL-backed bill that could have killed the private solar industry, DeSantis has seemed far more interested in working in the shade than for sweet sunshine.

If DeSantis had continued the pro-solar vein, he would have been like one of his Republican predecessors, Jeb Bush. Nearly 20 years ago, Bush was warning that the state relied too much on natural gas to fuel its power plants

“I think there’s more we can do in solar energy,” Bush said then.

Unfortunately, DeSantis became an ardent advocate of fossil fuels. I find it amusing that DeSantis has shown scant interest in Florida’s solar surge, because he loves to talk about how technology can solve our problems.

Hey, he says, instead of cutting back on pollution, we can fix our toxic algae blooms by paying an Israeli company millions to dump hydrogen peroxide into the water. Hey, instead of cutting back on fossil fuels, we can deal with sea-level rise by installing lots of pipes and pumps and walls.

You know what would be a cool technology fix for our soaring cost of power here in Florida where high utility bills have some folks skipping meals? If the governor and Legislature would try to encourage the utilities to install even more solar panels to produce economical energy for our growing population.

Shirreffs, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the best option is for them to just get out of the way and let market forces continue to push the spread of solar panels across the state. That’s been working well so far. But I thought of a few things they could do to make it even more of an attractive investment.

They could tell the Public Service Commission to increase the 75 MW limit to something larger for solar — 200 or 300, for instance.

They could use some of that Seminole Tribe gambling money to finance construction of bigger batteries to store the solar power longer.

They could even help poor people buy solar panels to put on top of their homes, and require it for the construction of new state buildings. Personally, I’d like to see some panels on the governor’s mansion.

None of this is likely to put our politicians’ mugs on Fox, but it will help bring down the high cost of living in Florida. It could even do something effective to counter climate ch— oh wait, I forgot, they don’t want us to mention that. Consider it an unspoken side benefit.

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020, the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. He is co-host of the “Welcome to Florida” podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children. This essay, reprinted under a Creative Commons license, originally appeared in the Florida Phoenix.

©2024 Florida Phoenix

Here’s why Florida utilities are building lots of solar farms (2024)


Here’s why Florida utilities are building lots of solar farms? ›

Jacob, the solar power expert for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the utilities are pursuing sun power so hotly because it makes economic sense. They're looking at the bottom line, not the horizon line. “Public officials don't embrace this agenda,” he said, “but so much of this is driven by market forces.

Why is Florida behind in solar? ›

Florida's solar policies have lagged behind other states: it has no renewable portfolio standard and does not allow power purchase agreements, two policies that have driven investments in solar in other states.

Is solar power worth it in Florida? ›

Are Solar Panels Worth It in Florida? Solar panels are worth it in Florida because residents can take advantage of the state's abundant sunshine, favorable net metering policy and other solar incentives which make the payback period around only 10 years.

What are some reasons people would argue against solar farms being built in their communities? ›

Many communities are skeptical of developers' promises and oppose the farms, concerned that solar projects will:
  • Fail to deliver substantial, equitable returns.
  • Destabilize local economies that depend on agriculture. ...
  • Harm local environment and wildlife.
Jan 18, 2024

How many solar farms are there in Florida? ›

Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) announced that, as of Jan. 31, 2022, it has installed 50 solar energy centers statewide – generating enough clean, emissions-free energy to power about 750,000 homes throughout the state.

Why do so few homes in Florida have solar panels? ›

Between the lines: Florida, unlike many states, doesn't have power purchase agreements, which arrange for a developer to install a solar energy system on a customer's property and sell the power generated to the customer at a fixed rate often lower than the retail rate.

Did Florida pass the solar bill? ›

Key Takeaways. Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed Florida solar bill HB 741, helping to protect the future of solar power in Florida. This Florida solar bill would have reduced the potential for homeowners to save on their utility bills through net metering.

Can you really get solar panels for free in Florida? ›

There are no deals that allow you to buy solar panels for free in Florida, however, there are deals that involve no-cost solar installations. This means you can get panels with no upfront cost but will still be liable to pay monthly fees and pay for the electricity you use.

What is the average solar bill in Florida? ›

How much do solar panels cost in Florida? As of July 2024, the average solar panel cost in Florida is $2.35/W. If you install a 5 kW system it will cost you between $9,971 to $13,491, with an average cost of $11,731.

Do solar panels affect homeowners insurance in Florida? ›

Your solar system will increase your home's value, so you may need to increase your coverage amount accordingly. Your carrier may have specific policies about hurricane coverage for your panels or require an “endorsem*nt” for your panels—this is typically an additional coverage.

What is the downside to solar farms? ›

Some of the cons of solar energy are: the cost of adding solar, depends on sunlight, space constraints, solar energy storage is expensive, installation can be difficult and environmental impact of manufacturing and disposing panels.

Why do people say no solar farms? ›

Farmland Is Disappearing

Many people are concerned that farmland throughout the United States is disappearing as the country becomes more urban and industrial and they think that solar farms are taking up more land that could be used for farming.

What do solar farms do to the land? ›

Silicon is the second-most abundant element in the Earth's crust and plays a natural role in the growth of plants. But even if it was harmful, studies have shown no significant leaching of materials from solar systems into soil.

Why is Florida not leading in solar energy? ›

The industry views Florida as a sleeping giant that could rival California in solar potential, but renewable energy experts say the state lags behind because old laws favor utilities over private enterprise.

Where does Florida rank in solar energy? ›

Florida maintained its spot as the number three solar state for the fifth straight year, adding a record 3.2 GW of new solar capacity in 2023. The aptly named Sunshine State saw over 50,000 residents install a new solar system on their home last year.

What city in Florida runs on solar panels? ›

America's first solar town is conveniently located just north of Fort Myers, Florida. Babco*ck Ranch combines sustainable living with over fifty customizable home plans and upscale on-site amenities.

Why is Florida not the leader in solar today? ›

Florida, despite its nickname The Sunshine State, is not the leader in solar power usage in the United States. There are several potential reasons for this: 1. Lack of Incentives and Policies: One of the primary reasons is the absence of strong state incentives and policies that promote solar energy adoption.

Why does the sun feel different in Florida? ›

The most important is latitude. Florida is, with the exception of Hawaii, the southernmost state in the nation. As a consequence, during both summer and winter, at noon, the sun is higher on the horizon than in states farther north. This means its rays are striking the state at a higher angle.

What is the solar outlook for Florida? ›

With more solar centers in the planning stage, FPL states in its latest 10-year forecast submitted to the Florida Public Service Commission that solar will increase to 35% of the company's power generation by 2032.

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