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Cooperative breaks ground with solar

The present-day impact on energy use of a new solar array being installed by the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative is akin to a drop in the bucket, but Chief Executive Officer Scott Newberry has a much larger picture in mind.

“I guess we’d be looking at well less than 1 percent. We sell roughly 700,000,000 kilowatt hours a year and this thing will produce somewhere around 131,000,” Newberry said.

This thing is a quarter-acre of land adjacent to the cooperative’s Marathon substation being used to construct a 582-panel solar array. Each solar module is 175 watts, facing south, with Kaco brand inverters that change DC sunlight energy into AC power. Newberry said the Coop views the solar panels as a research project more than anything else.

“It’s one thing to talk about it and it’s another thing to do it. We are the utility and people look for us to be the expert and what better way to do that than build one of these and keep monitors on it all the time,” he said. The cooperative plans to attach a link to its Web site, www.fkec.com, where customers can see how much energy the array is producing over any period of time.

The cooperative’s plan comes on the heels of what Newberry said is more or less a suggestion by Gov. Charlie Crist that 20 percent of the state’s energy be provided through renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal energies by 2020. According to an Associated Press report, Crist signed a major energy bill this summer directing utilities to draft rules for increased renewable energy production. The legislation that passed this spring doesn’t specify the 20 percent Crist was looking for, but he believes that goal is still something the state should attempt.

Newberry said the biggest problem with a 20 percent edict in the Keys is space. There simply isn’t enough land available to reach that number, he said.

“For us to meet 20 percent is going to be almost impossible,” he said. “We would need hundreds of acres.”

Not to mention the cost. As Newberry put it, “Green is good, but right now green is still costly.” The cooperative is shelling out $749,000 for what Newberry said is a relatively small solar array, but it’s the first step in the right direction.

“It will be generating electricity that will be tied directly into our distribution grid and going out, a little piece of it, into every home served from this substation,” he said.

Nettles Electric owner John Nettles, whose company is doing the installation, said it takes companies like the cooperative to make the public aware of the possibilities by using available technology.

“My analogy is everyone my age can remember the $150 calculator in the ’70s. People have to invest in the technology to bring the cost down,” Nettles said. “Companies that do this, it helps get it out there and gets the market going.”

The residual effect, Nettles said, is homeowners will understand the benefits and be aware of the costs they’ll incur by installing solar panels on their homes. He said a system capable of producing what would amount to $100 worth of electricity each month can be installed for roughly $28,000 after rebates.

The Senate recently passed a package that included more than $17 billion in renewable energy tax incentives. Among the incentives extended in the package: $1.9 billion for solar energy tax investment credits, $1.3 billion for residential solar property credits and $837 million for energy-efficient improvement to existing homes.

Keys Energy Services, Monroe County’s other energy provider, plans on doing its part within the next fiscal year, spokesman Julio Barroso said. The utility has a two-acre lot on Industrial Road on Big Pine Key where it plans to install solar panels at. That’s substantially larger than the quarter-acre lot the Coop is using in Marathon.

Keys Energy buys its electric from Florida Municipal Power Agency, which Barroso said is in the process of getting quotes on solar panels and materials before beginning any work. Keys Energy also recently finalized a lease agreement with Stand Up For Animals, which operates a shelter on the lot where the panels will be installed.

“The cost (of the solar array) will be split up amongst the members and included in the cost of purchasing power,” Barroso said, adding that grant funding may be available to offset costs as well.

Also in Marathon, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority plans to build a customer service center that meets Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design standards. LEED standards are essentially a way to rate the quality of green buildings.

Aqueduct spokeswoman Colleen Tagle said the 5,000 square-foot building will have a vegetative roof to collect stormwater runoff, as well as other environmentally friendly features like solar panels and cisterns.

Plans for the $4 million building have been delayed due to financial constraints, but Tagle said the hope is for construction to begin in the next fiscal year.

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