ST. PETERSBURG — Duke Energy’s search for land to build a possible solar energy farm in Pinellas County has raised curiosity and questions among local advocates for renewable power.
The utility earlier this summer contacted county officials about finding a 20-acre site to build a solar facility for subscribers in the community, company spokesman Sterling Ivey said.
The county offered an old landfill site between Ulmerton Road and 119th Street that abuts the Pinellas County Heritage Village in Largo.
Duke also is considering other locations in its Orlando and north Florida service areas, but the company has given few details about the power capacity of these prospective solar farms or the cost to customers who would have the option to use solar energy.
“For us, we hear that our customers want more solar and we want to look at how we can offer a solar product that benefits all of our customers, not just our customers who can afford to put a solar panel on their roof,” Ivey said.
Duke’s community solar program is part of a proposal being considered by the Florida Public Service Commission that also would significantly cut rebates and other incentives for customers who make energy efficiency improvements, such as installing a new water heater.
Plans for a solar farm will depend on that proposal being approved by the commission, Ivey said.
Duke and other major utilities such as Florida Power & Light have proposed slashing efficiency goals in these programs, making critics skeptical about their motivations in promoting solar power.
The PSC earlier this month approved a program by Florida Power & Light to build a limited solar power program based off of customer donations.
This program offers no direct savings or economic benefit to customers, says Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“We would look forward to seeing Duke’s proposal and if it is a solar project that does not provide direct economic benefits to the consumers who invest in it, it is in no way meaningful,” Glickman said.
Duke’s program might offer subscribers the opportunity to use power generated by solar panels at an additional cost, but it likely would not reduce power bills or help meet energy production needs, Ivey said.
Duke officials are in Tallahassee this week arguing before the PSC about the need to build additional natural gas capacity.
The utility maintains that Florida’s intermittent clouds and the difficulty of storing and delivering solar energy, especially during peak usage times like early mornings and evenings, makes the technology inefficient in meeting overall energy needs.
Duke is assessing sites for its solar program that could connect easily to existing transmission facilities, Ivey said.
Originally, the utility had shown interest in the former landfill site known as Toytown on Interstate 275, according to a memo from County Administrator Mark Woodard, but the county has flagged that massive parcel for economic development.
If a solar facility is built, the costs would be passed along to subscribers who want to use renewable power, Ivey said.
“Most likely, it will be on a subscriber basis and not necessarily that every customer’s bill is going to go up because we put a solar farm out there,” he said.
Duke has been catching heat recently from lawmakers such as Florida Sen. Jack Latvala for changing the number of days in its billing cycles, resulting in thousands of people getting higher energy bills this month.
Tim Heberlein of the Sunshine State Clean Energy Coalition said the solar farm appears to be a good move, but it seems to go against the utility’s other efforts to undermine renewable energy programs.
“It looks good on paper. The timing is suspicious and I think there are a lot of other obstacles they’re putting in the way to actually having more renewables and more solar in Florida,” he said.