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St. Johns County solar facility part of FPL's transition to renewable energy

Source: 
The St. Augustine Record

There is quiet among the rows of silicon panels catching the sun's rays over more than 800 acres, the site of a former cabbage farm, off County Road 305 in Elkton.

The only sound is the constant hum of solar inverters housed in locker-shaped pods that continuously turn radiant energy into usable electricity - enough to power 15,000 homes, both here locally and across Florida Power & Light's statewide grid.

The Trailside Solar Energy Center in Elkton, which became operational in late December, generates 74.5 megawatts from nearly 300,000 photovoltaic panels mounted on aluminum frames.

The facility is the first to go online in St. Johns County, bringing the number of FPL solar energy centers in operation across Florida to 37, as part of the Juno-based utility company's transition to solar as more cost effective and environmentally friendly than traditional non-renewable sources of energy.

Nine more solar energy centers are currently under construction, with expected completion dates in 2021, and FPL is aimed at adding 30 million solar panels to its power grid by 2030.

"It's a very aggressive expansion statewide," said Jim Bush, FPL's external affairs manager who is also a St. Johns County resident. "One that also lowers our carbon footprint."

In case you missed it:FPL opens electric vehicle charging station in St. Augustine

Previously:St. Johns County solar project nears operational status

Although it is the Sunshine State, even solar power in Florida is not 100% reliable, so FPL does use natural gas or nuclear energy to supplement its solar supply. Excess electricity produced by solar panels is fed to the electric grid, offsetting overall costs to residential and commercial consumers.

FPL serves more than half the state's population.

Solar is not just better for the environment, but it makes good business sense, too. Its production and delivery make it a more cost-efficient power source over the long term, both for consumers and providers, according to FPL spokesman Andrew Sutton.

In 2020, the company launched its SolarTogether program, which allows consumers to invest in FPL's solar production, even if they don't have solar panels installed on their own property.

By paying a subscription fee, enrollees are eligible to receive credits, which begin after their initial investment, said Sutton. The idea is that a participant's credits eventually would be more than their monthly charge, lowering their bill over the long term.

"It drives down the net cost for all FPL consumers," Sutton said.

Did you know?:FPL customers' bills to increase starting in May because of higher natural gas costs

It took about two years for FPL to build the Trailside Solar Energy Center, which is near the intersection of county roads 305 and 207 in southwest St. Johns County.

The total cost was about $100 million.

FPL chooses virtually undeveloped, large acres of contiguous land with proximity to existing transmission lines, Bush said.

If they outlive their use, the parcels can easily be turned back into agricultural plots since the steel pilings that hold the racks of panels are not cemented into concrete.

The setup is a fixed-tilt system, meaning it automatically adjusts its position to follow the sun's movement over the course of the day. At about noon, for instance, the panels are completely horizontal.

About 200 employees were hired for the construction phase. They are short-term hires for the most part since once the panels are up and running, it takes just one engineer to man the site, mostly remotely, just one of the reasons solar is less expensive to deliver than other forms of energy.

Public perception of the conversion to solar has been, on the whole, positive, Bush believes.

"Adjacent homeowners want to know what is going to happen when we first start construction," said Bush. "But I think, in general, people have come to think it makes a lot of sense."

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