The tubes have been buzzing with Orwellian news out of the Florida, in which environmental officials have apparently received marching orders to deny the human role in climate change. Nevertheless, the solar energy market in Florida could be set to grow in a big way. One clue is a huge new 1.5 gigawatt deal between the US renewable energy company NextEra Energy Resources and leading solar cell producer Hanwha Q Cells of South Korea, and we do mean leading as in world’s largest-capacity solar cell manufacturer.
NextEra Energy Resources is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, which happens to have another subsidiary called Florida Power & Light (FPL), which happens to be the third-largest electrical utility in the US. FPL has been late to the solar game, but solar is getting more and more competitive around the world, and even without support from Florida policymakers, the state’s solar resources and falling solar costs could make solar a no-brainer for FPL sooner rather than later. Combined with the news about Hanwha, that’s why we’re guessing that the Florida solar market could be spinning like a top sooner rather than later.
What’s The Matter With Florida?
First, a little context. Florida’s solar policy is, to put it kindly, stuck in the Dark Ages, which is totally crazy given its solar potential, but about what you’d expect given the climate change gag order.
Here’s a recent rundown from our friends over at SEIA, the Solar Energy Industries Association:
Florida, “the sunshine state,” ranks third in the nation for rooftop solar potential, but all the way down at 13th for cumulative solar capacity installed. Florida’s solar policies lag behind many other states in the nation: it has no renewable portfolio standard and does not allow power purchase agreements, two policies that have driven investments in solar in other states.
A major part of the bottleneck has been attributed to lobbying by the state’s utility companies, including FPL. However, bear with us and see if you can spot some signs of change.
Hanwha Q Cells and NextEra Energy Resources
While top Florida officials have staked out a climate policy that can best be described as la-la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you, global business leaders have been busily working the other side of the renewable energy floor.
The new Hanwah Q Cell solar energy deal will send 1.5 gigawatts worth of solar modules to NextEra Energy Resources beginning late this year, destined for markets in Japan as well as the US.
Specifically, Hanwha will supply solar modules based on the company’s record-setting Q.ANTUM cell. The basic Q.ANTUM cell set the global record for crystalline silicon solar cells at 19.5% efficiency back in 2011, and you can expect more tweaks following two recent moves by the company: a partnership with silicon wafer manufacturer 1366 Technologies, and a merger with Hanwha SolarOne.
The Q.ANTUM cell uses something called PERC, which is fancyspeak for passivated rear emitter contact (that’s fancyspeak for boosting solar cell efficiency by adding another layer to the back of a solar cell). Here’s the Hanwha secret sauce:
The rear surfaces of Q.ANTUM solar cells are treated with a special nano coating that functions much like a typical household mirror. Rays of sunlight that would otherwise go to waste are reflected back through the cell to generate more electricity. Laser-fired contacts complement the nano coating to enhance the module’s electrical properties, increasing its efficiency considerably.
As for NextEra Energy, the company is eyeballing growth in the market for utility-scale solar, which may include subsidiary FPL if Floridians are lucky enough.
To be perfectly clear, that whole 1.5 gigawatt pile is not earmarked for FPL or, for that matter, Florida. Far from it (remember, Japan will also get a share of the Hanwha market). However, we’re intrigued by the corporate connection between FPL, through NextEra, and the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer.
What we’re thinking is that this is good news for ramped-up utility-scale solar investment in Florida. At some point, even without policy support, solar will become more competitive than natural gas in The Sunshine State.
Unfortunately, the small-scale rooftop solar market in Florida will probably have to tread water until state policy changes, perhaps impelled by favorable court decisions in other states, such as a recent distributed solar case in Iowa. In the meantime, solar aspirants may have to settle for community solar projects as a middle ground.
Sunshine State Solar Market Growing…
While Florida’s top policymakers are somewhat hostile to the idea of putting the words “climate” and “change” anywhere near “human activity” in a sentence, Florida is one of the most vulnerable areas in the US to rising sea levels, so ready or not, climate change is coming.
In that context, FPL has been making some interesting moves despite the aforementioned linkage to anti-solar lobbying activity. Back in 2010, the company pulled together a first-of-its-kind solar energy retrofit for the existing Martin natural gas plant in Martin County.
The company also formed a partnership with NASA to pump solar-generated electricity into the state grid, and its DeSoto Solar Energy Center was the first utility-scale solar power plant in Florida.
That’s nothin’ compared to what FPL has planned for 2016, possibly a little help from those Hanwha solar cells:
We’re planning to build three new solar energy centers before the end of 2016, adding more than 1 million solar panels. That’s enough to cover about 3,000 football fields* or the equivalent of roughly 45,000 typical residential rooftop systems. These new solar energy centers, combined with other solar efforts in the communities we serve throughout Florida, would add more than 225 megawatts of new solar capacity, effectively tripling the 110 megawatts of solar energy serving our customers today.
The three new solar centers clock in at a total investment of $400 million. That’s a pretty big jump up from the mere $63 million that SEIA reports for all solar installations statewide in 2014.
…Right Into The NASCAR Circuit…
The company’s solar investments are also going to bring the solar experience up close for thousands of Floridians, in the form of a solar makeover for Daytona International Speedway announced earlier this year.
Part of a broader redevelopment project, the idea is to leverage a solar panel twofer, getting both solar energy for the grid and shade for the racing fans:
The plan comprises the installation of more than 5,000 solar panels on multiple canopy-like structures that will offer areas of shade for race fans while generating zero-emissions energy. The solar panels will be located outside the frontstretch, in the Sprint FANZONE and in one of the Speedway’s parking lots.
The completed 1.7 megawatt installation will put Daytona all the way up in the #5 spot of largest solar energy installations at US sports facilities. Shovels will be in the ground this fall with completion expected before year’s end.
The project will also serve as a data-gathering and learning platform for facilitating FPL’s plans to ramp up its solar profile in Florida next year.
…And The US Navy And Air Force
Speaking of winning hearts and minds, FPL isn’t the only busy little solar beaver in Florida.
Just last week, Gulf Power (a subsidiary of Southern Company), confirmed that it has won unanimous approval from the Florida Public Service Commission to build new solar farms at three military facilities in the northwestern panhandle of the state.
Eglin Air Force Base will get a 30-megawatt array, and two Navy facilities will get a total of 90 megawatts.
Shovels will go into the ground early next year, and you can expect those puppies to come online by December 2016.
So, that’s FPL and Gulf Power. If your radar is catching signs of a sudden jump in solar investment in Florida, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Image Credits: Florida solar panels via Shutterstock, and FPL