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Largest US Solar Energy Plant Comes on Line in Florida


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President Barack Obama traveled to Florida on Tuesday to help unveil the nation's largest solar power plant. Advocates of renewable energy hope the new plant will spur further development in the field.

Florida energy officials led President Obama through the maze of more than 90,000 solar panels that make up the new energy plant in central Florida. The facility in Arcadia is expected to help power 3,000 homes, at its peak, and do so without producing carbon emissions, like traditional coal-fired plants.

President Obama said he welcomes the drive to open renewable energy facilities. "For the very first time, a large-scale solar power plant, the largest of its kind in the entire nation, will deliver electricity produced by the sun to the citizens of the Sunshine State. And I think it's about time," he said.

In spite of its nickname as the "sunshine state," Florida has lagged behind other states in solar energy production until now. State utility Florida Power and Light says its Arcadia plant will produce 25 megawatts of energy, making it the largest in the nation at least for now. The utility has two other solar plants nearing completion in Florida, including one that will make three times more energy than the Arcadia site.

Experts say the $150 million plant is expensive compared to other technologies, and produces only a fraction of the state's energy needs.

But Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida, says costs are falling quickly. "The cost of solar has been dropping on average about 30 percent a year, where the cost of traditional energies has been going up exponentially because the price of fossil fuels is going up," he said.

Fenton says within three years the cost of large solar plants should be the same as for coal or oil power plants.

Energy leaders in California and Nevada also recognize the opportunity of solar power and are planning to build new plants in coming months. Even China's government has commissioned a U.S. firm to build a massive facility that would produce 80 times more solar energy than the new Florida plant.

Steve Smith directs the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which advocates for renewable energy uses in Florida and nearby states. He says interest in solar power is growing. "I actually believe we are at the beginning of a surge in activity in investing in renewable energy. The big question is which states and which countries are going to get the manufacturing jobs for producing solar panels," he said.

Japan, Germany and China are key producers of the photovoltaic panels used to capture sunlight and pass it onto the electrical grid. Smith says U.S. officials should move quickly to create incentives for U.S. panel makers to open new factories in Florida and other states. "With the high unemployment levels you want more job investment to come into the state," he said.

Smith says growth in the solar energy industry could be a boon for the environment and the economy at the same time.