By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

Florida's largest electric utility intends to double its solar-energy plans for the coming year, leading solar proponents to praise the announcement --- and say they would like to see more.

A month after outlining plans to build four solar plants this year, Florida Power & Light on Monday said it will put up eight such facilities by early 2018.

The company anticipates the plants --- combining to create nearly 600 megawatts of power, enough for about 120,000 homes at peak production --- will save customers "millions" over the lifetime of each center.

FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy, who told regulators last year the company planned to increase its solar production as part of a settlement agreement that included $811 million in base-rate increases for customers, said Monday the company is advancing the plans as new facilities become more cost-effective.

"By accelerating, we're able to get much better (rates), from a standpoint of purchasing power," Silagy said. "When you go out and place an order for 2.5 million panels, you get a lot of interest and some very competitive pricing."

Monday's announcement came as FPL officials were in Manatee County to commission the Manatee Solar Energy Center, which was one of three solar centers that came online Dec. 31. The others are the Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center in Charlotte County and the Citrus Solar Energy Center in DeSoto County.

Each of the recently completed 74.5-megawatt solar facilities --- the same output size as those planned to go up in the next year --- costs roughly $130 million to build. In 2009, FPL spent about $100 million for a 180-acre solar facility in DeSoto County that produces about 25 megawatts.

"This is a very positive thing for all of us who are advocates of solar power," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "We have long been saying Florida is a phenomenal solar market and maintain that all investor-owned utilities should be developing solar resources as part of their planning process."

Yet, Smith said FPL should have more solar facilities in place, when its size is compared with other regional utilities. He also contended the company could potentially save customers more.

By building plants under 75 megawatts, FPL doesn't have to competitively bid each project as required by the state Power Plant Siting Act.

"It's possible that other solar developers could develop those projects even cheaper than FPL," Smith said.

On Jan. 13, FPL announced four new 74.5-megawatt solar centers would be built in Alachua, Putnam and DeSoto counties.

The sites for the additional four plants are expected to be announced in the coming weeks, as permitting become final.

Silagy said the company is trying to geographically locate plants throughout its service area, which covers most of the East Coast and across parts of Central and Southwest Florida.

FPL estimates that each plant will require about 200 to 250 workers to build.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, praised "zero-emissions energy" produced by the solar panels.

"An additional eight new solar energy centers is a major step toward reducing carbon emissions and saving water, benefitting the earth and all Floridians," Draper said in a prepared statement.

The FPL mid-January announcement followed Duke Energy Florida releasing plans for a solar power plant in Suwannee County. The Duke plant, scheduled to be online by the end of the year, will produce 8.8 megawatts of power, which would be enough for about 1,700 homes at peak production

For FPL, the new plants opening by early 2018 will boost the company's solar capacity to nearly 1,000 megawatts.

Silagy said natural gas will continue to be used to produce the bulk of the company's electricity, but FPL wants to expand solar as a way to diversify fuel sources.

"We're still going to use natural gas. People still want to still use air conditioners at night. They still want to watch TV," Silagy said. "We're still going to use zero-emissions nuclear power. Those plants have been operating safely now for four decades and produce power very affordably. What we're not going to do, we're not going to build any coal plants. And we're not going to burn oil."

The Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group, in September ranked the Sunshine State third among U.S. states for rooftop solar potential, but 14th for its cumulatively installed solar capacity, due in large part to solar policies.

FPL became embroiled in controversy last year as it spent millions of dollars to support a proposed constitutional amendment on solar power.

The proposed amendment, which voters rejected, sought to enshrine in the Florida Constitution existing rules regarding the use of solar energy by private property owners. Opponents, such as Smith's Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, argued the proposal could have resulted in "discriminatory charges" against rooftop solar users and limit the desire of people to go solar.

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