Two years ago, this solar power group gave the sunny state of Florida a grade of “C” for its success – you might say lack thereof – with introducing solar power. The fact that Florida ranked behind several chillier states like New Jersey and Vermont, underscored both how solar can make inroads in climates where the sun does not always shine, but also, how there was much progress yet to be made in some of the most obvious locales. According to one more recent estimate, solar power accounts for just about two percent of all the power consumed in Florida.
But this month, the state of Florida is celebrating a breakthrough that should not only help it earn a better grade for solar power production, but also establish a new paradigm for combining traditional and alternative power sources in ways that lower production costs. Florida Power & Light Co. has unveiled a new power plant, the Martin Next Generation Solar Power Plant, which actually generates power through a combination of natural gas and solar. This hybrid power plant, which has even been equated to the Chevy Volt, was built on the site of an older natural gas power plant and upgraded with the addition of 190,000 solar thermal mirrors. Florida Power & Light says the plant will be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, outside of the state of California.
In the same way that hybrid cars offer drivers the assurance of a backup source of power, the Martin Next Generation Solar Power Plant will incorporate the natural gas production facilities on the site to improve overall efficiency. Solar plants typically use gas-fired turbines as a source of backup power generation for overcast days. But because Florida Power & Light did not have to build a new steam turbine or new high-power transmission lines, it was able to reduce power generation costs significantly. Last year, when the plant was still under construction, the company’s CEO told the New York Times that these added efficiencies would help solar power compete with some conventional sources. “We’d love to tell you that solar power is as economic as fossil fuels, but the reality is that it is not,” he said.
As the company is now demonstrating with the Martin Next Generation Solar Power Plant, it is possible to generate power from a combination of sources – both unconventional and alternative – so that they complement each other, rather than compete on price.