Florida Utility to Offer Solar-Power Option for Extra Fee

Florida Power & Light plans to build a small solar energy facility in South Florida next year as part of a program that encourages electricity customers to pay an extra fee to support clean power.

Nov. 30—Florida Power & Light plans to build a small solar energy facility in South Florida next year as part of a program that encourages electricity customers to pay an extra fee to support clean power.

About 9,000 customers have agreed to pay an additional $9.75 on top of their monthly electric bills to support renewable energy through the company's Sunshine Energy program. The company has agreed to build 150 kilowatts of solar power in Florida for every 10,000 customers who sign up, and it expects to pass that mark within a month or so.

Traditional power plants, fueled by oil, coal or natural gas, are among the biggest sources of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of the gases thought to cause global warming. Power plants fueled by oil or coal also are major sources of smog.

By signing up for the program, customers do not necessarily get clean power delivered to their homes. Instead, they provide indirect financial support to wind, solar and other expensive renewable sources through the purchase of renewable energy credits.

The power might come from windmills in Texas. Or methane gas captured at a landfill in Florida. Or waste-wood obtained from a pulping mill in Georgia. The Florida customers' money helps make these expensive sources of power financially feasible. FPL does not make a profit from the extra fee.

"The purchase supports the environmental benefits to the regions where the cleaner generators are located," said Jack Rose, product manager of FPL's Sunshine Energy program. "The contributions help promote the development of new renewable facilities in Florida. And as demand for cleaner electricity increases, more renewable solar facilities will likely be built to meet the demand."

More than 500 of these programs are offered by electricity providers around the country, with the support of environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. But critics say these programs serve mainly to help utilities head off state mandates to use renewable fuel.

Fifteen states require companies to obtain a percentage of their power from renewable sources. Colorado voters just approved a referendum requiring that 10 percent of the state's electricity come from solar and wind sources by 2015. Florida has no renewable-energy requirement.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group, said mandatory programs, which many power companies oppose, are the only way to make renewable energy a substantial part of the nation's power supply.

"What they've offered up in their place are these voluntary programs," he said. "The utilities love these programs because it's no sweat off their back and tend to be great PR at no cost to the company. Customers have to be savvy and realize these cannot be replacements for mandatory programs."

Still, he praised FPL's program as a "small but important step in the right direction" since it helped educate the public about renewable energy.

Karen Vissepo, spokeswoman for FPL, responded, "FPL is not in a position to speak on why other utilities initiate these programs or what the government renewal requirements may be in the future."

She said FPL has been a strong advocate for renewable energy, particular through its heavy investment in wind generation. But she said it's important to remember that wind, solar and other renewable sources are expensive. Solar can cost up to 60 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 6 to 8 cents for fossil fuels.

"Such a difference in pricing only reinforces FPL's commitment to provide cost-effective renewables that make sense to our customers," she said.

The Florida solar facility, which will be about one-third the size of a football field, will provide enough electricity for about 20 households. It will consist of solar panels erected on top of existing buildings. The company does not know where it will go, except that it is likely to go in Broward, Miami-Dade or Palm Beach County, which are home to most customers who signed up for the clean-power program.

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© 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News