FPL’s Elkton solar facility is part of renewable energy expansion

Silence reigns among the rows of silicon sheets that capture the sun’s rays over more than 800 acres, the site of a former cabbage farm at 305 County Road in Elkton.

The only noise is the constant hum of solar inverters housed in spindle-shaped pods that continuously convert radiant energy into usable electricity – enough to power 15,000 homes both locally and across Florida Power & Light’s nationwide network.

The Trailside Solar Energy Center in Elkton, which went into operation at the end of December, generates 74.5 megawatts from almost 300,000 photovoltaic modules mounted on aluminum frames.

The facility is the first to go online in St. Johns County, bringing the number of operational FPL solar energy centers across Florida to 37. This is part of the Juno-based utility company’s transition to solar power, which is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional non-renewable energy sources.

Nine more solar energy centers are currently under construction. Completion is expected in 2021. FPL intends to add 30 million solar panels to its power grid by 2030.

“It’s a very aggressive expansion across the state,” said Jim Bush, FPL’s foreign affairs manager, also based in St. Johns County. “One that also lowers our carbon footprint.”

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Before:The St. Johns County solar project is nearing operational status

Jim Bush, external affairs manager for Power and Light in Florida, stands next to a row of solar cells at his company's solar center in Elkton on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

Despite being the Sunshine State, even solar power isn’t 100% reliable in Florida. Therefore, FPL uses natural gas or nuclear energy to supplement the solar supply. Excess electricity generated by solar panels is fed into the power grid, offsetting the overall costs for residential and commercial consumers.

FPL serves more than half of the state’s population.

Solar is not only better for the environment, it also makes good economic sense. Its production and delivery make it a more cost-effective source of power in the long run, for both consumers and suppliers, according to FPL spokesman Andrew Sutton.

In 2020, the company launched its SolarTogether program, which allows consumers to invest in solar production from FPL even if they don’t have solar panels installed on their own property.

By paying a subscription fee, subscribers are entitled to credits starting after their initial investment, Sutton said. The idea is that a participant’s credits will end up being higher than their monthly fee, which will lower their bill in the long run.

“It lowers the net cost for all FPL consumers,” said Sutton.

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It took FPL about two years to build the Trailside Solar Energy Center, located near the intersection of 305 and 207 counties in southwest St. Johns County.

The total cost was around $ 100 million.

FPL selects virtually undeveloped, large acres of contiguous land close to existing transmission lines, Bush said.

If they survive their use, the plots can easily be converted back into agricultural plots because the steel piles that hold the frames of the panels are not cemented into concrete.

The setup is a fixed-tilt system, meaning it automatically adjusts its position to follow the movement of the sun throughout the day. For example, by noon the panels are completely horizontal.

Florida Power and Light's new solar center in Elkton can produce enough electricity for 15,000 households.  The nearly 3,000,000 solar panels cover more than 800 acres.

Around 200 employees were hired for the construction phase. Most of these are short-term hires as once the modules are up and running, only one engineer is required to manage the site, mostly remotely. This is just one of the reasons solar energy is cheaper to deliver than other forms of energy.

According to Bush, the general public perception of the switch to solar energy was positive.

“Neighboring homeowners want to know what will happen when we start building,” Bush said. “But I think, in general, people have come to the conclusion that it makes a lot of sense.”

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