n parcels known more for pecans and oranges, a Florida firm plans to raise huge crops of solar power.
On August 15 National Solar Power, based in Melbourne, Fla., announced its search for a place to construct the world's largest solar farm had been narrowed to four counties in Florida, after winnowing out counties in Georgia and North Carolina.
In September that search ended in the Tallahassee area, where National Solar Power CEO James Scrivener announced that Gadsden County's Big Bend region, just to the northwest, would be the home of the company's planned 400-MW solar farm, which the company estimates will catalyze $1.5 billion in total investment.
The world's biggest solar farm, in Ontario, has a generation capacity of 80 MW, though others continually vie for the title. But NSP's inaugural project dwarfs most contenders. The company aims for no fewer than 20 contiguous 20-MW solar farms, taking up 200 acres (81 hectares) each. Do the math and you get 400 MW spread across 4,000 acres (1,620 hectares). That's a bit bigger than Florida's current largest solar installation, a puny 6-MW effort from German firm Sybac in Gainesville, located there because of that city's utility offering a feed-in tariff.
"Gadsden County was chosen for this significant project for many reasons, including its great year-round climate, strong community leadership, incredibly inviting regional support and the strong potential for future economic growth," said James Scrivener, CEO of National Solar Power, at the project announcement. Important partners include the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce, Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College. National Solar intends to establish a solar energy educational and training center at TCC's Gadsden County campus featuring a 2-MW utility-scale solar farm.
The company has entered into an agreement with Progress Energy Florida and is having discussions with other potential customers to purchase power from the solar farm. "We've executed an 'as available' agreement with National Solar," confirms David Gammon of Progress Energy, meaning that the contract has been pre-appoved by the state's public service commission for suppliers who are intermittent. "The prices are based on our fuel cost and our customer demand," says Gammon. "We've executed this type of contract with one other supplier [Blue Chip Solar in Sorrento, Fla.], and we're talking with some others."
"Our approach to the energy market is to work with investor-owned utilities [IOUs]," says Scrivener, "and currently the IOUs in the Southeast are not compelled to buy the renewable energy credits produced by solar power. Therefore we seek to sign contracts with them, sell them the energy effectively at wholesale prices [avoided cost of generation] and then we keep the renewable energy credits. That's the arbitrage my investors seek. My development activities are driven by the desire of private investment capital to seek energy and carbon-credit price risk … people who believe energy prices are going to go up."
Scrivener says his firm's site selection process for the first solar farm was driven in part by finding the right chemistry with a utility off-taker in terms of contracts, people and service area. Then came the search for a similar chemistry with a particular area.
"We all live in Florida, and all graduated from Florida Tech, so our natural instinct was to try to start here," he says. But he says utility-scale solar development has been stymied in Florida, as well as in the Southeast in general. His team found a welcoming and savvy environment in North Carolina however, where the company worked early on in case the Florida option didn't work out. Once Progress Energy's Florida division was cemented as the offtaker, the focus shifted back to Florida, where NSP was looking for viable sites "and a local government willing to give us zoning and permitting and the property tax incentives we needed to proceed," says Scrivener.
"The cost of panels alone is upwards of $20 million on a single farm," he explains, noting that while utilities can pass along costs to ratepayers, he doesn't' have that option. "If you treat solar equipment as tangible personal property, then it is taxed at a very high tax rate. Early on, because of our approach to integrate solar at lower prices, we had to find ways to solve that problem. I say to the county, 'I can't afford to pay ad valorem, but we're willing to make a big investment in your community. We ask for the property tax abatement, and honor the school board taxes. Particularly in smaller rural counties, this can increase the tax base by 50 percent or 100 percent .
"For example, in Gadsden County, our estimate is upwards of $250,000 per year per solar farm into their school board in the form of tax revenue. They have a population of about 46,000, and 6,000 students in their school system. We're taking low-index timberland that generated little to no tax revenue, and creating a large taxable base for the schools."
The company estimates the Gadsden County project, which will supply enough power at completion to power 32,000 homes, will create 400 jobs during the five-year construction phase and up to 120 permanent operations jobs. National Solar Power expects each farm segment will have a three-person maintenance crew, an engineer and security personnel and estimates the permanent operations jobs will have an average salary of about $40,000 per year. The company anticipates much of the power produced by the solar farm project will be used for peak shaving — particularly energy production that will occur during the summer months.
In the meantime, the company is also advancing with a $700-million, 200-MW solar farm on a former orange grove in Hardee County in central Florida, reported earlier this month and officially announced on Nov. 30 after the Hardee County Commission approved the agreement. Ten 200-acre farms are planned at a cost of $70 million each. The project site is a few miles from Avon Park Executive Airport on the Holly Hill Grove property, a former orange grove parcel which Scrivener says suffered from the crop scourge of canker.
The company also is pursuing potential projects in the counties of Georgia and North Carolina that were among contenders for Project No. 1. Hensel Phelps Construction Co., most recently best known for rebuilding the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, will design, build and operate the solar farms.
Scrivener says that in his company's development model, scale is the key to viability.
"We're able to take advantage to some extent of the drop in commodity pricing of the equipment," he says. Combined with improving efficiency of that equipment, that means "an opportunity exists if you can reduce your transactional expenses. We're assembling many projects together in a bundle for the sake of development, project administration and finance. We can treat the transactions in aggregate. Rather than making a gourmet burger, we're building a line that produces many burgers efficiently — more of a McDonald's model."
Scrivener says the company plans to use polycrystalline PV panels in its first few projects, and is in the "home stretch" of supply contract negotiations with three U.S.-based manufacturers.
"We have made an effort to work with American technology companies," he says. "It hasn't been easy. But there are still a few competitive companies that are U.S.-based." He says he hopes to be finalizing transactions over the next 30 to 60 days. At the same time, he says the company is not married to any single supplier, and looks to choose the best available technology as each project goes out to bid, based on "bankability, performance guarantee and price."
Money and Land
National Solar Power is also negotiating with multiple large financial institutions and private equity investors to provide project financing. Concurrent with the Hardee County announcement on Nov. 30, Additionally, NSP announced the creation of Green Infrastructure Partners, LLC, "to help fund renewable energy infrastructure projects like the solar farms being built in Hardee and Gadsden counties. Green Infrastructure Partners offers a platform for Institutions and Accredited Investors to participate in the inevitable transition to a renewable energy infrastructure in the United States, while enjoying competitive risk adjusted returns on their capital. The company is externally managed and advised by Solar Capital Management, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of National Solar Power Partners, LLC."
Scrivener says money is out there in the marketplace and looking for yield, and the timing is right for large-scale integration of solar, in both distributed generation and utility-scale generation scenarios.
So who's backing these projects?
"We're involved in a due diligence process with a number of finance partners," says Scrivener, "a 'Who's Who' of the American financial services community" that includes large U.S. commercial banks and private investment groups. He anticipates announcing their identities sometime toward the end of the second quarter of 2012, concurrent with turning dirt on the solar farm projects themselves.
David Gardner, executive director of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce, says the county is making adjustments to its regulations to accommodate utility-scale solar farm land use. He says the project is the largest capital investment the region has ever seen "by far," and already has led to two prospective projects that are related to green energy. As for the land itself, he says there's no shortage.
"We have 325,100 acres (131,568 hectares) in Gadsden County, primarily agriculture, even though we're in the shadow of the capital," says Gardner. "Finding 4,000 acres adjacent to transmission and power stations is not real difficult. Nobody wants to give it away, but they're not trying to steal it either."
"We have about 4,300 acres [1,740 hectares] under contract," says Scrivener of the two counties in Florida, "and we have another 1,000 or so under letter of intent." Those totals include just over 2,000 acres (809 hectares) in Gadsden, where the firm is doing surveys, soil and environmental testing and site planning. And it's all with just three landowners so far: Just two weeks ago, NSP signed a purchase agreement with one of the largest timberland holders in the nation for parcels in Gadsden County.
"We anticipate working more with them in the future," says Scrivener. "They have a lot of land that fits our profile, and have a good receptive group that appreciates the benefit from a renewable energy perspective."
Skeptics Into Champions
As with any paradigm-shifting project, there are more doubters than believers. Scrivener says that's a good thing.
"We're slowly winning over those skeptics to be champions," he says. "We're not afraid of hard questions. We think we're on the leading edge in the way utility-scale generation is going to be handled. But that's what believers say, right? Ultimately the proof is in the pudding. We feel pretty confident we're assembling something different from what's been done before. The reason the opportunity exists is because people say we can't do it. They'll continue to doubt, and we'll continue to assemble large projects, and we'll see who's right."
Scrivener sees speed to market as the natural complement to scale.
"We view the market in 20-megawatt segments. The goal is to have 100 sites on the drawing board by the end of 2012, and scale up from there," with nearly all prospective sites in the southeastern U.S. While direct employment at NSP is only about a dozen and indirect full-time partner employment is between 50 and 60 right now, he says the solar farm projects will employ a couple hundred apiece once construction begins, and he anticipates a doubling of project development personnel every six months "at the rate we're going right now," with the bulk of those positions coming with Hensel Phelps.
Gadsden County's David Gardner says whether it's a Fortune 500 company or a Florida start-up, you never know until the dirt's turning. But he's seen enough evidence to convince him there's a high-value renewable energy opportunity.
"The numbers have to work. The margins are slim. But if this model works, the sky's the limit for them," he says.
Meanwhile, the price of pecans has folks in a bit of a tizzy in his corner of northern Florida.
"We have pecan trees here outside the Chamber," he says, "and I see people there all day picking up pecans. It's borderline frenzy."
He and other county leaders across the Southeast hope National Solar's family of solar power farms soon will yield its own bountiful harvest, with off-takers and developers alike bringing economic growth and vitality to rural America.