Orlando has begun to harvest energy from its new “solar garden,” which is providing power for dozens of homes and businesses that want to tap the sun’s energy but can’t do it on their own.
Orlando Utilities Commission has signed up 39 customers willing to pay slightly more to support the newly constructed power plant.
One customer, Robert Swanson, who runs a property-leasing business, soon regretted his decision to purchase just 7,000 watts of the system’s 400,000 watts of capacity. He decided he wanted 15,000 watts — more than enough to run a typical home — but the extra power wasn’t available because the system sold out in just days.
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“This is a little step in the right direction if we want to continue to survive on this planet,” Swanson said.
Power from the solar garden doesn’t flow directly to a subscriber’s home. Instead, it feeds into the grid that supplies all OUC customers. But it wouldn’t have been built without enough subscribers committing to paying a premium for the solar-generated electricity.
Residential customers now pay 10 cents to 12 cents for a kilowatt-hour of electricity, enough to feed 10 light bulbs of 100 watts each for an hour. Power generated by the solar garden will cost subscribers 13 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The solar garden, covering about 2.5 acres of OUC property near John Young Parkway and visible from Interstate 4, was built and is owned by a private company. The system consists of more than 1,300 solar panels mounted on canopies built over parking spaces.
The Orlando-owned utility will pay the company 18 cents for a kilowatt-hour of solar power, with 13 cents coming from customers and 5 cents as a subsidy from OUC. Utilities officials said regular rates won’t be affected by the system.
The upside of the 13-cent rate is that it’s locked in for 25 years and could become a bargain should the price rise for conventional power.
OUC is planning to construct a second solar garden next year. It has 62 customers on a waiting list from the first solar garden ready to buy 600,000 watts of capacity.
The utility has not decided how many solar gardens it will build.
“We’ll see what the appetite is for this,” said Byron Knibbs, utility vice president for customer and sustainable services.
Swanson said he’s willing to incur the extra cost because he supports clean energy. But whatever the appeal of solar, the advantage of the solar garden is that subscribers don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars to install solar panels on their rooftops.
And solar panels aren’t an option for homes under tree canopies and for people who live in condos.
Solar gardens get their name from being smaller than solar farms that can cover hundreds of acres. They are gaining momentum in U.S. Western states, but they’ve been all but nonexistent in the Sunshine State.
The first was built by Florida Keys Electric Cooperative several years ago and had only moderate success because solar was more expensive then. It is still producing electricity.
Solar power generates a less than 1 percent of the nation’s electricity. But some utilities worry that they will lose their financial ability to maintain their generators, substations and transmission lines as more solar panels appear on customers’ rooftops.
The solar garden, however, is essentially part of OUC, which will hold a ceremony for the plant Tuesday.
“There are going to be more of these,” said Bob Reedy, solar-research director at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa.
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