The key to the future of Florida’s electric grid is a device that can be confused with a computer server.
This device is actually a battery unit. Each component in itself is as powerful as 2,000 iPhone batteries. But together, as a collection of tens of thousands of modules, they make up the world’s largest solar battery storage facility owned by the state’s largest, Florida Power & Light.
FPL’s Manatee Energy Storage Center is a cutting-edge solar technology in a sophisticated pastoral environment in fast-growing southwest Florida.
At night or when there is heavy cloud cover, the energy from the sun captured by the facility’s near field of solar panels can be stored for later use, reducing the need to rely on fossil fuels and allowing the excess renewable energy generated so it is not in vain.
Battery storage can fill the solar electric gap in cloudy days at night
Much like a rooftop solar contractor might advise a homeowner to install a battery pack alongside their solar system, battery storage has become an integral part of large-scale renewable energy investments.
“I think it’s safe to say that storage is a necessary component as we evolve into more intermittent resources,” said Brian Jacob, director of the solar energy program at Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Jacob said battery storage could help bridge the gap between energy resources in times of day when solar energy is online and offline, or it could serve as a needed boost during periods of use, such as when people come home after work.
When these utility-scale solar investments were first made, “solar downsizing hasn’t been a big problem yet,” Jacobs said, referring to the process in which renewable energy production is reduced from its full potential due to supply and demand needs.
“So you can now absorb the extra generations of what’s going to happen without having to scale back,” he said.
FPL has more than 500 MW of solar energy storage, the bulk of which comes from the 409 MW Manatee Solar Power Center in Paris. Looking 10 years into the future, Juno Beach hopes to increase its battery capacity sevenfold by adding another 3,200 megawatts of storage.
“You don’t need as many batteries (like solar plants) because they don’t produce new energy, they store it for later,” Silver said. “In the long term, I think we’ll start to see that there will be value to the batteries that help meet the afternoon peaks and early morning peaks as we get more and more solar power on the system.”
The FPL solar battery is located in a rural town with a growing population
The Parish facility, which began operations in December, is located on 40 acres of State Route 62 in unincorporated Manatee County, where developments on single-family homes are slowly taking over farmland as Florida charges additional fees as it grows rapidly, which in turn is adding more of consumers on the network.
About 400 battery modules, each weighing more than 200 pounds and manufactured by Samsung, were carefully stacked in each of the site’s 132 large metal containers. There is a warning outside each container: “Danger. Lithium-ion batteries. Fire and explosion hazards.”
Each container can store about 7 megawatts, said Marcos Quintana, FPL’s regional director. This storage facility can power 329,000 homes for two hours.
This group of modules stores energy that mostly comes from the solar power plant, which is located about half a mile away while the crow flies.
“If we need fast charging and solar energy is not available, it is technically capable of charging from the grid,” said Matt Silver, FPL development project manager. “But obviously we want to charge from the sun as much as possible.”
FPL Battery website talks about the past, present and future
In the background of the solar panels and storage facility is one of FPL’s natural gas power plants, where two red-and-white striped chimneys from the 1970s tell a half-century-old story of Florida’s past and future from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
These stacks were set to decommission with the arrival of the solar battery facility, but now they will only be used if high winter electricity usage necessitates, as part of the FPL’s effort to prepare for harsh winter weather.
The 74.5 MW solar power plant, connected to the storage facility by buried cables, began operating in 2016 and consists of more than 340,000 panels. A herd of cattle roams just outside the gate, while inside, wild boar traps help attract notoriously destructive types of expensive equipment.
FPL has 30 megawatts of solar energy storage at two of its other solar sites in Suwannee and Columbia counties, and the facility has a number of smaller pilot projects while exploring electric vehicle charging stations. Other major electrical utilities in Florida, namely Tampa Electric and Duke Energy, are also making investments in battery storage.
“It’s really just another tool in the toolkit,” Silver said. “Everyone is always looking for the silver bullet or magic wand to wave that will solve all of your energy needs. But like anything else in life, it will likely be a variety of things that accumulate to meet our energy needs.”
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