Duke Energy plans for 500MW of solar in Florida by 2024

The US state of Florida will have up to 500MW of utility-scale solar capacity added to its electricity mix by 2024, in new plans revealed by power giant Duke Energy.

In America’s latest example of big utilities’ shift to renewables – and away from coal, Duke filed its solar expansion plan with the Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC) last week, as part of its Ten-Year Site Plan, which also includes provisions to retire half of its coal fleet.

Starting with 5MW by the end of 2015, and another 35MW by 2018, Duke’s “remarkably fast ramp-up” of solar capacity in Florida would see most of the 500MW added in just six years, Greentech Media reports – after the federal Investment Tax Credit drops from 30 per cent to 10 per cent at the end of 2016.

“To what extent those 500 megawatts will be realized is an open question,” said senior solar analyst at GTM Research, Cory Honeyman.

“But the fact that that’s a part of Duke’s resource plan is a really important validation of the potential long-term stability of the utility-scale segment, despite the stark drop-off expected in 2017.”

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas – the capital of  America’s ‘oil state’ – city-owned utility Austin Energy has revealed plans to seek up to 600MW of solar projects, as part of its shift to 55 per cent renewables over the next decade.

Like Duke in Florida, Austin Energy’s strategy calls for the use of revenue and capacity created by a new 500MW combined cycle gas plant investment to allow for the retirement of older fossil fuel generation.

The utility will also maintain the current target of 800MW of energy efficiency and demand response by 2020, will add an incremental 100MW of demand response to achieve a total of at least 900MW of demand side management by 2025, and implement a plan for distribution connected local storage of at least 10MW, complemented by as much as 20MW of thermal storage.

The Austin news followed that from another city-owned Texas utility, Georgetown Utility Services, which in March revealed plans to add a 150MW solar plant and another 144MW of wind to source 100 per cent of its electricity needs from ‘cheaper and more reliable’ renewables.

Florida, meanwhile, despite being America’s Sunshine State, has a less-than progressive solar record, with politically backed power companies, including Duke, accused of actively working to stifle rooftop solar growth.

“We in Florida are stuck in the stone age. This is probably the most Byzantine energy legislation in the country,” local politician, Republican Dwight Dudley, told the Miami Herald just this week.

Dudley, one of an increasing number of Conservative supporters of rooftop solar in the US, said he had filed legislation that would have increased renewable energy in the state, but none of his ideas made it to the House floor.

But Duke – which in Florida provides 1.7 million customers with 9,000MW of owned electricity capacity, more than 60 per cent of which comes from natural gas – appears to be coming to terms with what solar has to offer, both for its customers and for the utility itself.

“Innovative investments in solar energy will provide customers with more options to use this resource while diversifying our energy mix and continuing to meet the needs of Florida’s growing economy and population,” Alex Glenn, state president for Duke Energy Florida, said last Wednesday.

As part of the 10-year plan, Duke’s Hines Energy Center intends to increase energy efficiency and power output throughout the summer months.

This will include the development of a combined-cycle natural gas facility in 2018 at Citrus County; a purchase and proposed acquisition of the Calpine Osprey Energy combined-cycle unit; and four planned combustion turbine units at an unspecified location in 2024.

But it will also include the closure of two coal plants in the next few years — half of Duke’s coal fleet – with a combined capacity of 869MW.

“If you look out across the 10-year landscape, adding 500 megawatts of solar is definitely going to be a significant resource for us,” said Duke spokesperson Sterling Ivey in an interview with Greentech Media.

Ivey said Duke was deploying solar slowly, to gauge how best to integrate it into the grid, and how best to use storage.

“Solar is going to be around,” said Ivey. “The cost is coming down, and we want to be able to use this resource to the best of our ability.”

Over the past eight years, Duke Energy says it has invested more than $4 billion in wind and solar facilities in 12 states. The utility plans to invest another $2 billion to $3 billion in renewable energy over the next five years.

© 2015 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

Giles Parkinson