On a sunny day in Florida, I watched the American flag rise and fly over hundreds of acres of solar cells. It was an amazing experience to think the million panels I was looking at in Manatee County were replacing energy from conventional fuel combustion plants. Yet this solar field feeding directly into the power grid was not using any water nor emitting pollution. I could not have been more excited.
In recent years, Florida has increasingly lived up to its name as the Sunshine State, with more and more solar panels dotting our landscape. Solar energy makes so much sense for Florida’s natural environment because every watt of solar electricity reduces energy produced by traditional generation.
Growth in Florida’s solar capacity is accelerating largely as a result of large solar power plants Florida Power & Light is building, just like the one I visited in February. On that day alone, six FPL solar plants generated 335 megawatts of electricity — the same capacity as a coal-fired power plant.
Along with saving water and reducing air pollution, solar plants have an additional benefit. The land used to build fields of solar panels can be used to enhance habitats for birds and other wildlife. Fallow land repurposed for solar can recharge groundwater by allowing rainfall to soak into the earth. With so much of natural Florida being gobbled up by development and agricultural uses, I’m for using every acre we can to restore some lost wildlife habitat.
Audubon Florida has long been a proponent of solar power. We were there nearly a decade ago promoting the policy that led FPL to build the state’s first solar plant in DeSoto County, the largest in the country at that time.
On the day I watched our flag fly over the new solar plant, FPL announced one of the largest expansions of solar power ever in the southeastern United States — eight new solar power plants with 2.5 million solar panels that will generate enough electricity to power 120,000 homes by early 2018. Shortly thereafter, FPL furthered its commitment with plans for an additional 1,500 megawatts of new solar under development across its Florida service area.
Each will feed electricity directly into the grid to serve all FPL customers at no net cost.
In support of our clean energy and water conservation goals, and in keeping with Audubon Florida’s commitment to community-based conservation, we are partnering with FPL to advance solar energy while improving the environmental values of the land where the solar plants are sited.
By recommending bird and pollinator-friendly vegetation for the solar plants, Audubon and its local chapters will make these facilities home to wildlife and nature. Audubon already has provided recommendations of native trees, shrubs, grasses and vines.
FPL’s solar energy advancement already aligns with Audubon’s goals. But it is the potential of partnership with local communities to protect and enhance wildlife that says more about FPL’s motivation. They are investing in making these sites friendly for butterflies, bees and birds.
Working together, we can harness solar energy and the power of Audubon’s grassroots community. We can ensure solar power plants not only advance zero-emissions and zero-water-use energy but also benefit the local communities where they are built.
That’s a partnership worth celebrating for Earth Day in the Sunshine State.
Eric Draper is executive director of Audubon Florida.