A Lake County pasture where cows now graze could soon become Florida's largest solar-energy farm, producing enough power for 8,000 homes.
County commissioners unanimously approved a zoning change this week for the 200-acre field, allowing Lake Mary-based Blue Chip Energy to build a 40-megawatt plant.
The Sorrento project, one of several sun-power ventures in operation, under construction or planned in Central Florida, would eclipse Florida Power & Light's 25-megawatt Next Generation Solar Energy Center in DeSoto County as the state's largest, said Craig Livingston, Blue Chip Energy's project manager and architect.
Construction began in April on a 6-megawatt solar array at the Orlando Utilities Commission's Curtis Stanton Energy Center, east of Orlando, while FPL, which serves 4.5 million customers, is buying electricity produced at a 10-megawatt solar field on 60 acres of NASA property at Kennedy Space Center.
"The more solar in Florida, the better," said James Fenton, a professor of mechanical, materials and aerospace engineering at the University of Central Florida and director of the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa.
If you want to make energy, he said, the best things to plant in an acre of dirt are solar cells.
The Sorrento project would create 250 to 500 jobs during its construction phase, Livingston said.
Blue Chip Energy, which has been working with Lake economic-development officials for more than a year, acquired the pasture in March for $1.15 million. The company must make a New Year's Eve deadline for panel installation to earn federal-stimulus funds that were set aside for renewable-energy projects.
The company boasts a 1,000-panel array on the roof of its Lake Mary headquarters, where it also manufactures the photovoltaic panels that turn the sun rays into electricity.
The solar-farm site north of State Road 46 once had been slated to become a 161-home addition to Sorrento Springs, the foreclosure-plagued gated community that surrounds the public Eagle Dunes Golf Course northwest of Orlando.
But Livingston told Lake commissioners that he viewed the farm's field of 174,000 solar panels as a possible "ecotourism" destination that would lure theme-park visitors to Sorrento, about a 50-minute drive from Disney.
The company plans to build a learning center and observation deck on the site.
But some neighbors of the Sorrento site were concerned that they had been given little notice of the proposed solar field, a reputed $200 million investment, and knew little of possible risks or drawbacks.
"I'm not against solar, but I need to have more information on the impact it is going to have on our community," said David Warden, who learned of the project from an email distributed by his homeowners association.
He worried that the large array of solar panels could further depress property values in his neighborhood.
As a former resident of California, Jeanine Hoffman, who also owns a home in Sorrento Springs, pointed out that she was familiar with solar farms but noted that out West, they are located in the desert and not near neighborhoods.
The company's plan, approved by commissioners, includes promises to put up hedges to hide the solar array and to keep large oaks that distinguish the rural site on County Road 437.
The electricity produced by the solar farm will be sold to Progress Energy, which owns a substation on an adjacent property. Livingston said 55 gopher tortoises identified by an environmental study will "co-exist" on the site.
"There's no impact to the schools. There's no impact on your water supply," he said, touting the benefits of the project. "There's no impact on traffic, and it will add to your tax base. This is clean, renewable energy."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-742-5930. 5/27/11
Conservastore LOVES SOLAR FARMS-the lady who is worried about how it will look. Well how do gas stations look every few blocks in a city. It is something we are accustomed to. Get a bunch of solar farms out there showing no ill affects to health and reducing the cost of energy and people will get very accustomed to them
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