Unpacking Florida Power & Light’s ‘30 Million Solar Panels’ Promise

Unpacking Florida Power & Light’s ‘30 Million Solar Panels’ Promise

Florida Power & Light said Wednesday it will install 30 million solar panels by 2030, achieving "the largest installation of solar panels by a regulated utility in the world."

The “30 by 30” goal would entail a major escalation of the regulated utility’s solar capacity. It has developed roughly 1,000 megawatts over the last few years. The utility’s deregulated sister company, NextEra Energy Resources, has already proven itself a global leader in renewables development.

The commitment provides another data point in the national trend of regulated utilities embracing solar power at scale, said Colin Smith, a senior analyst tracking utility-scale solar at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of utilities crossing the 1-gigawatt threshold of planned capacity,” he said. “We’re now seeing whole utilities plan significant percentages of their entire generation portfolio to come from solar.”

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The framing of Florida Power & Light’s goal appeared targeted at people who don’t work with solar power. Practitioners typically describe solar projects in hard capacity numbers, rather than the functionally vague panel count. Different panels have different capacity ratings, and these are likely to change over the coming decade as technology improves, making it hard to pin down how much power 30 million panels will actually deliver.

Taking the rough estimate of 350 watts per panel, which anticipates some capacity improvement in coming years, Florida Power & Light's target would amount to 10,500 megawatts, roughly five times more than the total installed capacity of Florida today.

Of course, few outside the energy industry traffic in megawatts; whole numbers and dollar signs convey sheer scale better for the average reader. Hence Duke Energy’s framing of its planned energy storage construction as a $500 million endeavor, or Xcel Energy’s commitment to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050.

Despite Florida’s abundant solar resource, it currently ranks eighth for installed solar capacity, lagging behind sunny Massachusetts. Florida Power & Light’s plan would change that, turning Florida into a hub of solar activity, potentially sparking similar efforts from other utilities in the state. The announcement also anticipates "a significant amount of battery storage" being built alongside the solar.

Who gets to do all the building is another question.

Florida Power & Light (FPL) said in its announcement that it "has secured solar sites throughout the state," implying that it has already begun development for the massive effort. And the company internally developed its recent flurry of 74.5-megawatt projects, including four more expected online in 2019, Smith said.

“There’s a real precedent for them to do it themselves,” he said of the 30-by-30 construction. “They have an incentive to have a large portfolio in the long term.”

Under the regulated system, capital expenditures to build power plants add to a utility’s rate base, increasing the money it makes, whereas the costs of a power-purchase agreement get passed through to customers without increasing the utility’s compensation.

If FPL does bid out some of the projects, it will likely start a feeding frenzy of large-scale developers looking to build at scale in the Southeast. Things could get interesting if NextEra Energy Resources tries to bid; other top developers might object to keeping things in the family.

Manufacturers will clamor to get in on the action as well. FPL signaled that it plans to "capture economies of scale," and knowing it wants to deploy 30 million panels means the company can buy in bulk.

As it happens, FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy, agreed to buy 7 million panels from Jinko Solar as part of the Chinese manufacturer's deal to build a factory in Jacksonville, Florida, after the Trump administration imposed import tariffs on solar modules last year.

"It's exciting to know that solar panels built in Florida will be helping to power FPL customers in the not-too-distant future," FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy said when that deal was announced last March. At the time, FPL was working toward a goal of 4,000 megawatts of solar capacity.

There is some math to figure out. Jinko's U.S. factory will produce 1 million panels per year, so if every single panel fabricated in the next decade went from Jacksonville to FPL, the utility would still need to buy two-thirds of its requirement elsewhere.

As long as some of a project's components come from in-state, though, the company can claim the "made in America" title alongside the jobs it will create to construct the plant. FPL has proven itself savvy in messaging its solar projects as not just clean energy assets, but also as economic boosters for the region.

Now its ambitions have risen to global utility leadership on clean energy. More impressive, it's doing this in a state that lacks a renewable portfolio standard.

"They’re saying, ‘We are going to significantly ratchet up how much solar we’re going to build, not because of any state policy in place, but because of its economic competitiveness and the value it will give to our ratepayers,'" Smith noted.

That both signals to other utilities that solar's economics have arrived, and raises the stakes for any that have shied away from sweeping efforts to make use of this energy source.

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