Thinking Big

April 1, 2008
Don't think electric utilities are making any big-time investments in photovoltaics and wind power? Meet what could be the greenest utility in the United States -- FPL Energy

The numbers stagger the mind — 500,000 parabolic mirrors in a massive photovoltaic (PV) power plant to be constructed on 2,000 acres in California's Mojave Desert will one day help to provide thousands of California homeowners with green electric power.

The Beacon Solar Energy Project is just the latest investment in green power for FPL Energy, Juno Beach, Fla., part of FPL Group's 25-state power empire. FPL Energy has become a major player in the renewables game, and with $3.5 billion in 2007 sales, they may very well be the greenest electric utility in the world.

The new California project will join its seven existing Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS) facilities that have operated in the Mojave Desert for the past 20 years. The company says these facilities are collectively known as the world's largest solar site and with their generating capacity of 310 mW, can produce enough power for 230,000 homes.

At the new Beacon Solar Energy Project, which will break ground in late 2009 and take about two years to build, solar collectors with mirrored surfaces reflect sunlight onto a receiver that heats up a liquid. This heated liquid is hot enough to turn water into steam, which is then used to power turbine generators. These generators produce electricity and feed it to the nearby electric grid.

FPL Energy aims to add at least 600 mW of new solar power by 2015. The company has already identified 1,100 mW of new solar sites and has leased, optioned or owns outright a significant amount of land in the west and southwest U.S.

The company is an even bigger player in wind power and according to its website has more wind-powered generating capacity than any other company in the United States. It has 56 wind facilities in 16 states, and the 421 wind turbines it operates at the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center located near Abilene, Texas, crank out 735 mW, making it the largest wind farm in the world.

In total, FPL Energy has more than 5,000 mW of wind assets throughout the United States and plans to add 8,000 mW to 10,000 mW of wind-generating capacity by 2012. It has large facilities in Texas and California, the two states with the most power generated by wind, but it has facilities throughout the nation, with a large concentration in the Upper Midwest. The company says the cost of wind power has decreased significantly from 30 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in the 1980s to its cost today of 4.5 to 7.5 cents per kW.

FPL Energy expects the rapid growth to continue, but in a press release, Mitch Davidson, the company's president, said the government needs to extend the federal tax credit for investment in renewable energy. “Continuation of the tremendous growth we've seen in wind energy is not without its challenges,” he said. “Timely extension of the renewable energy production tax credit, along with addressing ongoing transmission and interconnection challenges is vital to our ability to meet these goals and the long-term viability of the wind generation industry.”

Wind power accounts for 33 percent of FPL's power portfolio. Solar currently accounts for less than one percent, but that's expected to grow as its new centralized PV plants come on line. While wind energy currently accounts for a much larger share of its power production, FPL Energy sees enormous potential in photovoltaics. In a presentation at the 2008 Credit Suisse Energy Summit held earlier this year, the company cited estimates from Schott SolarthermieGmbH, a German builder of PV power plants, that said if a solar facility was built covering a 186-mile square in the Sahara Desert, it could theoretically produce enough electricity to power the world.

Along with its solar and wind generating plants, FPL Energy operates natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric facilities. Its parent company also operates Florida Power & Light, the largest public utility in Florida with 4.4 million customers, and FPL FiberNet, which sells fiber-optic network capacity to long distance telephone companies, Internet service providers and other telecommunications companies in Florida. FPL Group has annual revenues of more than $15 billion. At press-time its shares were selling on the New York Stock Exchange for $64.82.