Climate

Tampa Bay Utility Is Installing Region’s Largest Solar Array At Tampa International Airport

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Tampa’s electric utility is installing the equivalent of more than five football fields of solar panels at the Tampa International Airport, a project that will be the largest solar array in the Tampa region.

Tampa Electric Co. is installing 280,000 square feet of solar panels on top of a parking garage at the airport, a 2-megawatt array that will provide enough energy to Tampa’s energy grid to power about 250 homes. As the Tampa Bay Times reports, the solar installation is the utility’s first major solar undertaking: it’s 66 times larger than Tampa Electric’s other solar installation, a 30-kilowatt array at Legoland in Winter Haven, FLA. In addition, more solar could be added to the array in the future if the project proves successful.

The airport project will be a “big investment for us in terms of learning,” Tampa Electric’s President Gordon Gillette said, and its success could spur more investments in solar — both from the utility and from other businesses in the Tampa Bay area. Right now, only 0.135 megawatts out of the 4,500 total megawatts of power Tampa Electric generates comes from solar, and Gillette said the lessons learned from the airport project will help the utility decide what kind of solar projects are best for investment.

“I think a lot of the outstanding questions with renewable energy going forward is, how is it going to be best to deploy it?” Gillette told Tampa Bay Times. “I think the numbers as we know them right now are telling us that it’ll be cheaper to install facilities like this.”

Tampa Electric is hoping construction will be finished by 2015, and the cost of the project is estimated at between $5 and $6 million.

Historically, Florida has been slow to take advantage of the energy opportunities its sunny weather provides — the state ranks third in the U.S. for solar potential, but 17th for cumulative installed solar capacity. Florida also doesn’t have a Renewable Portfolio Standard, even though it has one of the highest rates of household electricity consumption in the U.S., due to its high rates of air conditioning usage. Florida utilities have also pushed to scale back energy conservation programs that offer rebates for residents who install better insulation or more efficient windows and appliances.

But there are some in Florida who are fighting to make the state more solar-friendly. In September, three renewable energy groups based in the Southeast joined to create a new coalition that will push the state to pursue more solar-friendly policies.

“It’s a real injustice that the solar market in the Sunshine State is being held back,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy — one of the groups involved in the coalition. “It basically is the largest untapped market in the United States.”

The five Florida scientists who met with Gov. Rick Scott earlier this summer to discuss climate change are also calling on the governor to take solar seriously. They and 37 other Florida scientists sent a letter to Scott last month, asking him to attend a summit that will focus on finding solutions to climate change.

“We stand ready to discuss advances in clean energy options, such as energy efficiency, solar and wind power,” the scientists’ letter states. “These energy sources offer the best potential for meeting the carbon limits cost effectively and reducing the future impacts of climate change on Florida with the added benefit of creating jobs and keeping energy dollars in the state.”

It’s unclear whether Scott will heed the scientists’ call. In the meantime, though, the Tampa Bay solar array shows progress on solar energy in the state. Scott McIntyre from Florida-based Solar Energy Management told the Tampa Bay Times that the solar array could be important for the future of solar in the Tampa Bay area.

“I think it sort of raises the profile of solar,” McIntyre said. “If a utility is willing to invest in solar, then obviously the numbers work, both on a municipal scale and on a commercial scale.”