Much as neighbors might grow carrots and tomatoes in a single, community plot, Orlando's municipal utility wants to plant a garden where its customers can harvest individual shares of solar power.
Already popular in other states, such "solar gardens" involve adding hundreds of photovoltaic panels to an area such as a parking lot, rather than erecting thousands of panels on a solar "farm" covering hundreds of acres.
Orlando Utilities Commission, in pursuing what apparently would be only the second project of its kind in Florida, plans to offer customers the chance to buy power from a solar garden in southwest Orlando at a fixed price for as long as 25 years.
"If you want to do solar, this is the cheapest way to do it," OUC spokesman Tim Trudell said.
OUC's residential customers now pay 10 cents to 12 cents for one kilowatt-hour of electricity, which is enough to power 10 light bulbs of 100 watts each for an hour. Power generated by the solar garden would cost 13 cents per kilowatt-hour.
For some customers, the added expense of OUC's Community Solar Program may be worth it if they are concerned about coal mining that destroys Appalachian mountaintops, natural-gas drilling that poisons aquifers, and fossil-fuel burning that pumps heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
But just as important: That 13 cents per kilowatt-hour could become a bargain if, as some utility experts say is inevitable, prices shoot up for natural gas, which Florida's utilities depend on heavily to produce electricity. Higher natural-gas prices would put pressure on OUC to raise its standard power rates.
Another selling point of a solar garden: "It works for people who want to have solar panels but can't because trees shade their homes," said Bob Reedy, solar-research director at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa. Apartment tenants and condominium owners -- who account for more than half of OUC's 185,000 electric customers -- can't install solar panels and also may be drawn to such a program.
Unless it's canceled for lack of participation, the Community Solar Program will allow OUC customers to sign up for "units" of electricity from the solar garden.
Each unit will consist of 1,000 watts -- the output of about four solar panels -- that will flow into OUC's power lines. The 1,000-watt output of those four panels will produce an estimated average of 112 kilowatt-hours a month. At 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, one unit of solar-garden power will cost $14.56 a month -- or about $1 to $3 a month more than an equivalent amount of electricity from OUC's coal, natural-gas and nuclear plants.
The program will allow customers to sign up for as many 15 units; an average residential customer uses about 10 units worth of power. A $50 deposit required at enrollment will be refunded after two years, and a solar subscription will follow customers if they move within OUC territory. Also, customers will be credited for any solar power they don't use each month from their subscription.
OUC President Dan Kirby was the first customer to sign up for the program. He pledged to buy seven units' worth of power, to show his support for the effort and because he has long wanted solar but did not want to spend thousands of dollars upfront to install a system on his roof.
Solar gardens are gaining momentum in California, Washington state, Colorado, Utah and Massachusetts, said Seth Masia, spokesman for the American Solar Energy Society, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Colorado.
The system generally thought of as the nation's first, depending on your definition of a solar garden, belongs to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. That Northern California utility's program, started in 2008, was fully subscribed within six months by 672 customers.
Florida's first such system is widely considered to be one established several years ago by Florida Keys Electric Cooperative. Scott Newberry, that utility's chief executive officer, said customer participation was disappointing because solar power at the time was much more expensive than it is now.
OUC's solar garden will consist of 1,632 solar panels -- each about 3 feet by 5 feet and able to pump out 245 watts -- attached to canopies built above 208 parking spaces at the utility's Gardenia Avenue complex near John Young Parkway and Interstate 4.
The array's total capacity will be slightly less than half a megawatt, or enough to completely supply about 40 homes. The array will be owned, financed, built and maintained by ESA Renewables LLC, a Lake Mary company and a subsidiary of Energia Solar Aplicada of Spain. Municipally owned utilities such as OUC usually pursue solar projects through private companies because nongovernment operators have access to federal grants or tax credits.
ESA Renewables will spend $1.2 million building and starting up OUC's solar garden and will seek a grant to cover about 30 percent of that cost, said Lindsay Herold, the company's contract administrator.
Working through a power-purchase agreement, OUC will pay ESA Renewables about 18 cents for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by the solar garden -- so the utility will be subsidizing its customers' subscriptions to the tune of 5 cents a kilowatt-hour.
Trudell, the utility's spokesman, said the project is small enough that the subsidy won't affect rates for customers who don't participate. He also said OUC plans to expand the program if it proves popular.
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