Florida Power & Light (FPL), the 3rd largest utility in the US (for number of customers) has announced it will install the world’s largest battery storage system.

The Manatee Energy Storage Center will boast 409 MW of capacity. That’s almost 4x larger than the world’s current largest utility-backed battery system, a 100 MW system of Tesla Powerpacks in South Australia paired to a wind farm.

FPL will co-locate the batteries with an existing solar farm. The utility hopes to complete the project by late 2021. The project comes as FPL announces it will quadruple down on its solar and renewables investments over the next decade. Just a few months ago, they announced a plan to install 30 million solar panels by 2030, a move that would shift Florida’s total solar capacity to one of the highest in the country.

FPL claims the move will save its customers $100 million and eliminate over 1 million tons of CO2 emissions. The energy storage center will cover 40 acres of land and distribute 900 megawatt-hours of electricity, enough to power 329,000 homes for a couple hours.

Energy storage and solar: the perfect combo

The Manatee Energy Storage Center is part of FPL’s modernization plan to replace two natural gas-fired power plants that were built in the 1970s. FPL plans to pair the batteries with an existing solar farm that is already installed in Manatee County.

Solar energy, while cheap, has limited benefits when it’s not paired with any storage. Utilities must use the electricity right when its produced, usually from about 10 AM to 3 PM. However, utilities’ highest demand period – what they call ‘peak demand’ – is when homeowners get home and go about their lives from 4PM to 8PM, so solar energy can’t be used to meet this high demand.

FPL’s idea – and most utilities thinking about energy storage – is to pair their solar panels with batteries to utilize that clean energy during those peak demand times. So while the battery project isn’t adding any new clean energy to FPL’s generation mix, the batteries will better allow FPL to treat the existing solar farm as a true power plant – a challenge that needs to be solved if renewable energy is truly going to replace existing fossil-fueled plants.

Due to Florida’s huge population, the state is the 3rd biggest producer of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (according to the EIA). In total, it produces over 200 million tons of CO2 per year (see below).

However, that’s not the whole story. FPL currently sources 70% of all its electricity from natural gas and just 4% from coal, about even with Florida’s overall average. With coal being the major contributor to emissions, Florida’s per-capita emissions are actually quite low when compared to other states, many of which source 50% or more of their energy from coal.

Dividing all that CO2 emissions by their population of 21 million, Florida actually ranks 13th for cleanest energy production among all states, mostly thanks to their dependence on natural gas. Look at the chart below and you’ll see that the top per-capita emitters include Wyoming, North Dakota, and West Virginia, all of whom rely on coal for 70% or more of their electricity production.

In reality, FPL actually has pretty clean energy, but this isn’t to say it couldn’t do better. Look at the charts above and you’ll see that California actually produces more CO2 than Florida in total, but per capita the state has some of the cleanest energy in the country, thanks to extremely progressive laws to decrease energy emissions.

FPL’s tenuous relationship with rooftop solar

As FPL’s fossil-fueled plants near retirement age, it’s looking to the renewable energy sources to meet demand. In January 2019, FPL announced a plan to install 30 million solar panels by 2030, what they called their ’30-by-30’ initiative. Considering that most solar panels produce about 330 watts, that would be about 9,900 MW of total solar capacity – about 4.5x more than their current capacity of 2,200 MW.

The move comes in seemingly stark contrast to FPL’s recent, antagonistic history with homeowner-owned, rooftop solar energy. Back in 2016, FPL spent $8 million campaigning for Amendment 1, a deliberately confusing constitutional amendment designed to stifle the home solar industry by allowing utilities to charge solar homeowners higher fees. Voters blocked the initiative at the polls. In 2017, the utility was accused of ‘suggesting’ language for another state bill that would restrict local 3rd party solar installers under the guise of ‘consumer protection’.

FPL is both actively installing solar in huge amounts, but also trying to stifle the local solar industry at the same time. While that might seem counterintuitive, it actually makes sense (at least, for their own profits) when you break it down.

Unlike twenty-four states that have passed laws to ‘decouple’ utility profits from electricity sales, profits for Florida utilities are still tied to electricity sales. In other words, the more electricity they sell, the higher the revenues and, by extension, profit.

Homeowners who install solar and produce their own electricity literally eat away from FPL’s profits. FPL has no issues with solar panels as a source of electricity generation. They have issues with their customers owning electricity generation. Like many privately-owned utilities in the US, FPL is fighting tooth-and-nail to avoid losing the near-monopolistic hold they’ve had on the electricity market for the last century. They want solar, but they want to own the solar and keep the profits they’re used to.

From an environmental perspective, all this doesn’t matter. A megawatt-hour of clean energy is equally worthwhile no matter who owns the equipment. Ignoring FPL’s continued fight against homeowner-owned rooftop solar, the utility’s recent solar and energy storage announcements are a huge step forward for clean energy. Without any prodding or nudging from regulators or legislation, a privately-owned, profit-driven business is turning to clean energy, presumably driven by market forces and the desire for a bit of public goodwill, since poll upon poll shows that we Americans just love solar energy.

Image Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia