By the end of this year, the world’s second-largest solar powerplant will be unveiled in what were once Floridian swamplands, 500acres north of West Palm Beach. According to the New York Times,190,000 mirrors and thousands of steel pylons will compose the strikingdisplay in Indiantown, Florida, a glimmering ode to the nation’srenewable energy future among the humble flora and fauna of itssurrounding wetlands. The story here, however, is not of the solararray’s size or splendor, but of its integration with a fossil fuelpower plant—the nation’s largest, in fact.
The FPL Group utility, the parent company of Florida Power &Light, is the muscle behind the Martin Next Generation Solar EnergyCenter, the first of several comparable hybrid energy projectsspringing up in the industry. Although solar plants integrated withsmall, gas-fired turbines for backup purposes are not uncommon, the FPLsolar hybrid plant is the first instance of a “conventional plant [ ]being retrofitted with the latest solar technology on such anindustrial scale.” The solar thermal system will be directly gratedonto the existing natural-gas plant, and the two will share bothtransmission lines and a steam turbine. The benefits of suchhybridization are twofold: the electricity generated from the plant’s75-megawatt solar thermal system will cut natural gas usage andconsequently carbon emissions, and the retrofit will be cheaper thanbuilding a new solar power plant from scratch. (FPL expects to cutcosts by 20 percent, compared with a purely solar facility, as it isspared the trouble of constructing a new steam turbine and transmissionlines.)
If successful, the hybrid solar power plant will provide a model forhow to produce solar power on a grand scale while cutting costs evenfurther. While it doesn’t completely erase the footprint of itscarbon-breathing predecessor, it’s a reminder of the role economicsplays in the adoption of renewable energies.
“We believe there is a cost to society associated withcarbon emissions and not having energy security and not having domesticenergy supplies,” [said Lewis Hay III, FPL’s chairman and chiefexecutive.] “But it’s not a level playing field for renewable versusfossil fuels right now.”
With the utilities of 29 states required to increase their renewableenergy portfolios, it’s crucial that the playing field become moreeven—one way or another.