Solar panels adding power to grid

A half-acre solar array will be producing electricity for homes and businesses in the Florida Keys in the next few weeks.

The array being installed by the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association will be the second largest in the state of Florida, according to installation contractor Nettles Electric.

FKEC has received $1 million from the Internal Revenue Service’s Clean Renewable Energy Bond program. The funds will pay for solar equipment with a total generating capacity of about 120 kilowatts — about the electricity used by 2,000 60-watt light bulbs.

FKEC sells roughly 700 million kilowatt hours per year.

The Marathon project is the first phase and will produce a maximum of 96.6 kilowatts, the utility announced. The second phase is planned for installation within FKEC’s Crawl Key Substation and will have a capacity of 21 kilowatts, FKEC officials said in a press release.

“FKEC is committed to finding alternative energy solutions and we are proud to be adding clean, green power to our system,” CEO Scott Newberry said in a statement.

Planning the installation “has also taught us a lot about solar power.” he said.

“To me, one of most disappointing discoveries is that, despite how long solar power technology has been in use, it is still very inefficient and expensive compared to traditional methods of power generation.”

The new array in Marathon will produce enough electricity to power about 10 homes. An average home uses about 1,150 kilowatt hours a year, Newberry said.

Installing the solar array cost about $749,000. Assuming a 15-year lifespan for the array, each 1000 watt hour of electricity it produces will cost 40 cents, not including maintenance costs, according to the FKEC. That is about four times the wholesale cost of power that FKEC purchases from Florida Power and Light.

The solar project is in part a response to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s call for 20 percent of Florida’s energy to be produced by renewable resources by 2020.

Newberry said the goal is going to be hard to meet in the Keys because solar arrays require large open spaces.

FKEC’s first solar array is being installed on a half-acre field next to the utility’s Marathon Operations Center.

The array is made of 552 solar modules. There are 27 inverters that convert the electricity from direct current to alternating current.

The array is tied directly to FKEC’s electric grid and the power produced will flow to homes and businesses served by the Marathon substation.