FPL opens new solar energy power plant in Columbia County

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COLUMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WCJB) -- One Florida utility has a lofty goal to make the state a world leader in solar energy, and a new solar plant in Columbia County is part of that goal.

The new 935-acre FP&L Sunshine Gateway Solar Energy Center took nine months to build, coming into operation on January 31st and officially opening Monday morning in a ceremony attended by FP&L C.E.O. Eric Silagy.

The plant's construction cost around $100 million and created 200 jobs in the Suwannee Valley area. The location is highly-visible to travelers, nestled between I-10 and I-75.

"They're built cost-effectively, meaning there's no net cost to our customers," said FP&L Spokesperson Stephen Heiman. "Savings from fuel and other generation-related expenses not only pay for the initial investment to build this site, but will generate millions of dollars in saving over the long term."

Florida Power & Light set a goal of installing 30 million solar panels across the state by 2030, increasing solar energy's 2% share of FP&L's total energy portfolio to anywhere from 20- to 25%.

Heiman said the company's goal relies on technological improvements in solar development.

"We're seeing battery technology becoming more affordable and becoming more of an asset to the solar power plant," Heiman said. "So being able to store more of this energy to be used at a later time is really the next step to advancing this clean energy system."

Julie Wraithmell, the Executive Director of Audobon Florida, was also at the celebration. Wraithmell said the organization has partnered with FP&L to bring the environment into plants like Sunshine Gateway.

"There will be portions of the area, strips, set-asides that will be planted with native plants," Wraithmell said. "So there will be flowering plants that are great for pollinators, seed-bearing, they also attract insects for birds and other animals that depend on those for a food source."

Sunshine Gateway is home to about 340,000 solar panels, generating 74.5 megawatts of energy.

Heiman said the plant generates enough energy to power around 15,000 homes, although the energy is transferred to the grid, which powers homes across the state through a variety of energy sources. The bulk of FP&L's energy portfolio is comprised of natural gas.