North Escambia County is farm country, and a different type of farm is blooming. Cotton Creek Solar Energy Center is going up on 550 acres, with a second farm nearby also on the drawing board.
“We are now part of Florida Power & Light; we’re drawing on their solar progress, to install 30 million solar panels across the state by 2030,” said Gulf Power spokeswoman Kimberly Blair. “The two solar sites that we have in Escambia County are part of the ’30 by 30’ plan.”
The Escambia County Development Review Committee granted approval for the Cotton Creek solar farm in November 2020.
“In the meantime we were working on the development of Cotton Creek in Escambia County near McDavid,” Blair said. “Getting all the necessary permitting and everything. And that solar center – we’re happy to announce – we’ll start construction very soon, within the next couple of months.”
Gulf Power’s first solar project as a member of Florida Power and Light is the Blue Indigo Solar Energy Center in Jackson County, which went online last April. It has 300,000 solar panels, generating up to 74 and a half megawatts of electricity.
“Each of our solar energy centers are all 74.5 megawatts of energy; and each one of those is capable of producing enough zero-emissions energy to to power about 15,000 homes.”
Gulf Power is also seeking the necessary permits for First City Solar Energy Center, also near McDavid, about ten miles north of Cotton Creek. The name “First City,” says Blair, carries with it a bit of local flavor.
“We really work hard to find names that have something to do with the feature of the history of the community – the land features, the animals,” said Blair. “That land has been part of Gulf Power’s land for a long time; we wanted to pay homage to Pensacola as the ‘First City.’”
And Blair adds, that’s not all.
“Our goal is to have about 1,560 megawatts of new solar over the next decade, just in Northwest Florida alone,” Blair said. “
The local areas are also expected to benefit from the projects, with millions of dollars being pumped in to their economies.
“Each one of these solar energy centers, at the peak of construction, will create up to 250 jobs,” said Blair. “All sorts of jobs, in terms of putting the solar panels together; site preparation and working on installing the technology that goes into these solar energy centers.”
But even when the solar farms begin generation, it will not be the death knell for Gulf Power’s Crist Plant on Pate St. in Pensacola. Blair says the plant has begun a new chapter in its life.
“We actually retired coal [at Crist] at the end of last year; it is now a natural gas generating plant, reducing the carbon emission by 40 percent,” Blair said. “At this point I don’t think we’ll see fossil fuels going away; natural gas is a much cleaner fossil fuel. But at this point solar energy centers only generate power when the sun is shining.”
And for those watching their power bills each month, Gulf Power’s Kimberly Blair says when the farms are in operation, they’ll see those numbers come down eventually.
“These are very low-cost to operate; once they’re up and running they are unmanned – they are monitored remotely,” Blair said. “If one little panel stops working, we have a manager for each one of these solar sites that lives within the area. That means a lot lower operating cost.”
Residences with rooftop solar systems will be able to qualify for interconnection with Gulf Power, under Florida's “net metering” program.