Gulf Power Company is partnering with the City of Pensacola, on a solar power demonstration project using public property. And the project is drawing more than just casual attention.
The city has a number of solar projects on the drawing board, according to Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson, to provide a showcase for such energy and how to use it.
“We’re looking forward to solar canopies over at Sanders Beach; these will also provide shade,” said the mayor. “Solar trees, one corner will be on city hall property, the other will be at the Maritime Park. We appreciate working with Gulf Power in that line.”
There are two different types of solar power — large industrial, such as a utility company, and individual. Robinson says the city is for both.
“The only solution for us to move forward out of our current dependency is looking at both those models, so we really appreciate Gulf Power stepping up with us,” Robinson said. “But at the same time we’ve made it very clear out there to small, individual solar people that we’re more than happy to work with them as well.”
Along those lines, the mayor says utilities are not the only players on the solar energy field.
“We are wide open to other people who are involved with solar, and if they would like to work with us for some of these facilities in any city place, we are more than open to also working with them,” said the mayor. “Our goal is not to necessarily pick one type of solar, but to say, ‘We need to be moving to more renewable.’”
So far, nobody has contacted the city about such a project, but Robinson says they stand ready to explore what projects can be done.
Meantime, Gulf Power Company is running a number of solar projects, including three on military bases – which are “going beautifully,” according to spokeswoman Kimberly Blair.
“We have one at Saufley Field; one at Holley Field that’s part of NAS Whiting Field, and we have one at Eglin Air Force Base,” said Blair. “They are putting out about 120 megawatts of solar energy. We actually partnered with the military to help them with their sustainability goals.”
The sun is but one source of renewable energy being developed by Gulf Power. Renewables make up about 11% of the utility’s energy mix. The Crist Plant in Pensacola will be converted from coal to natural gas by year’s end. Blair says they’re responding to public demand.
“We have started providing renewable energy in 2017 with solar and wind from Oklahoma,” said Blair. “And it is our commitment now to continue to build solar energy centers with it makes sense and where it make sense.”
As mentioned, another of the utility’s partnerships is with the city of Pensacola, on the construction and operation of so-called “solar trees," which look like actual trees, and of canopies.
Gulf Power is also joining with sister utility Florida Power and Light on a plan to install 30 million solar panels across the state by the year 2030 — many of them in Northwest Florida.
“We have plans that call for a total of 1,560 megawatts of new solar in the next decade in Northwest Florida,” Blair said. “And that’s a big win for our environment, [and] for our customers because so many people really desire to have this renewable energy.”
However, some believe that the partnership between Pensacola and Gulf Power is falling short. Among them is the group 350 Pensacola, where Sandra Adams is Executive Director.
“This current agreement between the city and Gulf Power is just for a couple of demonstration projects on a couple of pieces of city property,” said Adams. “The proposal seems to only benefit Gulf Power. The city gets to use the electricity, but at the same rate that they would be paying for any other electricity.”
Adams’ advice to the city and the utility on developing solar: pick up the pace.
“We think it needs to be moved along a lot quicker; the city’s own climate mitigation and adaptation task for has recommended that we reach 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2040,” Adams said. “And if we’re going to do that, we need to get moving with getting a bunch of projects up and running in the city of Pensacola.”
One of the major obstacles to developing solar on a grand scale is the cost – fairly prohibitive at this point, says Adams. Only those with larger incomes can afford to install the solar panels on their property. Among the points made by 350 Pensacola is for the development of third-party companies.
“What they can do is what they do in other states – they lease the solar energy – they put the panels up on people’s houses,” said Adams. “People don’t have to have a huge outlay of money at the beginning to buy the panels. They sign an agreement saying they will pay these particular, smaller, companies a price for their energy that they’re creating.”
Adams contends such a third-party could be a community – such as the city of Pensacola. There’s talk that solar farms could go up at the city’s Superfund cleanup sites.
“We think that’ll be a great use of the land, as long as those things could be on in a fairly environmentally positive way – which we think they probably could,” Adams said. “There’s also other places: there’s community centers, the public works complex, hangars at the airport. All sorts of new things could be put up in different locations.”
Gulf Power’s first owned and operated solar energy center began operation in April in Jackson County. The Blue Indigo Center has more than 300,000 tracking solar panels, capable of producing almost 75 megawatts — enough to serve about 15,000 homes per year.