Help wanted

Solar farms offering high-wage jobs

Jesse Hollett
Posted 3/15/17

MELROSE – Florida Power and Light has begun hiring workers to build two new solar farms in Hawthorne and Florahome, near Melrose.

Collectively, the solar farms have a 151-megawatt electricity …

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Help wanted

Solar farms offering high-wage jobs

Posted

MELROSE – Florida Power and Light has begun hiring workers to build two new solar farms in Hawthorne and Florahome, near Melrose.

Collectively, the solar farms have a 151-megawatt electricity capacity while the sun is shining – enough to power about 30,000 homes. The Hawthorne farm is on 1,315 acres, while the project in Florahome will use 587 acres. The average array takes up about 450 acres.

The two farms, announced in early March, are part of four new solar farm expansions the electric utility has planned for 2017.

The utility estimates completion dates for the two solar farms by Dec. 31, and will hire about 250 workers at roughly $16 an hour. The top end of the pay scale goes as high as $21.47 per hour for more experienced workers.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see jobs like this pay that type of money ever again,” said Randy Page, business representative with the North Florida Carpenter’s Union, who is handling the hiring process. “We’re trying to recruit as many local people as we can just to help the community out. Why not keep the money in the community?”

The utility currently operates 11 other solar farm installations, and, as it stands, they show no signs of slowing their solar program. FPL has announced eight new solar plant construction projects across Florida. The utility hopes to complete all projects by early 2018.

Improvements to technology mean even solar farms built within the decade remain inferior – and more expensive – than current technology.

“As the cost continues to decline we can now build these cost effectively, it’s just gotten more cost effective for us to build these,” said Stephen Heiman, an FPL spokesman. “We’re now building plants three times this size for the same cost.”

Prices for utility-scale solar panel installation projects fell 60 percent since 2007, according to a 2016 study by the Department of Energy’s Electricity Markets and Policy Group. Falling renewable energy prices along with increased regulatory pressure is beginning to crack the coal industry.

FPL has approximately 850 customers in Clay County. And while these two solar farms represent an initial investment of about $140 million each, Heiman said the utility is likely to earn that money back through low maintenance costs and reliable energy generation.

“Our universal solar energy centers are built cost-effectively, meaning there is no net cost to customers after savings from fuel and other generation-related expenses. In fact, these eight new plants are projected to save our customers millions of dollars of the life of the projects.”

Heiman said the changes were part of a push to phase out coal power plants. The average life of a solar panel is about 30 years.

Much of the movement towards cleaner burning energy comes from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations on the industry that President Barack Obama rolled out during his administration. The Clean Power Plan, specifically, mandates energy companies to reduce their carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

Heiman said the addition of solar alone has allowed FPL to meet that goal.

Electricity generation represents 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and 67 percent of that electricity comes from burning fossil fuels – mostly coal and natural gas. Although for the last eight years, ‘Big Coal’ has seen an enemy in the executive branch, newly elected President Donald Trump has planned massive rollbacks on energy regulations. Massive changes in the market overall, however, have made it uncertain whether it will make a significant impact.

Clay Electric Cooperative customers who would like to use solar energy are, at least currently, comparatively out of luck. Clay Electric sources its electricity from Tampa-based Seminole Electric Cooperative.

In December, the wholesale energy distributor held a ribbon cutting ceremony for its own solar array, which, by itself, would only generate 2.2 megawatts on solar power.

However, Seminole also has biomass and landfill gas generation in its energy portfolio, meaning Clay Customers who want green energy and all of its benefits aren’t at a complete loss. Seminole distributes energy to nine separate nonprofit utility companies.

With solar panel prices on the decline, there’s also an opportunity for customers outside of FPL’s service area to set up their own panels on their home and either live off-the-grid or sell the energy back to the cooperative.

On rainy days and nights, however, FPL must rely on its other staple energy sources – natural gas and nuclear.

“We’re the largest generator of solar energy in Florida and I believe solar energy will play an increasing role in the future,” Heiman said.

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