The sunshine state is in the spotlight for a groundbreaking solar plant that will add solar thermal collectors to an existing gas fired power plant. The result will save 2.75 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, while providing reliable power.
Natural gas power plants are criticized for generating power from a costly fuel source. Solar power is criticized for generating electricity only when the sun shines (although solar energy storage is solving this problem). Could this hybrid power plant be a marriage made in heaven?
Fossil fuel use is suspended when the heat from the sun is available to power the steam turbines. Approximately 180,000 mirrors over 500 acres will be used to collect sunlight and use the heat to power turbines. This 75 megawatt plant can power up to 11,000 homes.
The Martin Next Power Generation Solar Center will utilize the infrastructure of the existing FPL Martin Plant, reducing the upfront cost of the endeavor. Construction began last week and should be complete in 2010.
A similar technology can also be applied to coal power plants and has been done in New South Wales, Australia. The drawback to these solar retrofits is that a relatively large quantity of vacant land is needed adjacent to the plant. Because most natural gas and coal power plants were not planned with solar in mind, these conditions rarely occur.
On the bright side, this hybrid plant reduces risk for FPL. Future fossil fuel prices are unknown and could make the cost of generating electricity significantly more expensive. Natural gas has seen dramatic price volatility in recent years, although the prices have dropped since this summer. Renewable energy typically has a higher upfront cost, but lower operating costs over time. Additionally, if a carbon tax is created, the cost of generating electricity from natural gas will increase, although modestly when compared to coal.