Lauren Ritchie, COMMENTARY
What the heck are they growing out there?
Take a drive out to County Road 437 to see acres and acres of poles sticking out of the ground — 2,700 of them all neatly lined up like little soldiers standing at attention. Are they planted there, growing into telephone poles?
They’re 12-foot galvanized stanchions that are designed eventually to hold solar panels in what is expected to be the largest solar “farm” in Florida.
The Lake Mary firm of BlueChip Energy arrived in Lake County with a splash last year when it announced the project adjacent to Sorrento Springs, a gated community.
In November 2011, the company broke ground in the pasture where it intends to install 174,000 photovoltaic panels, which should generate enough electricity to power 8,000 households. The company makes the panels at a facility on Rinehart Road in Seminole County.
Then, the project bogged down. The company was the subject of lawsuits from vendors claiming nearly $500,000 in bills hadn’t been paid, and regulatory agencies had plenty of demands. Then, there were county zoning rules and unhappy neighbors.
And, to make the project more financially viable, the company really needed to buy more property, and the most desirable was 198 acres owned by Eustis.
Folks who live in the area or drive by it may have wondered whether the project had gone bust, like so many other underfunded solar-energy endeavors.
It has not.
In fact, things are beginning to come together, said Carlos Gonzalez, managing director for Sorrento Solar Farm, the associated company that will own the operation east of Eustis.
The lawsuits are settled, he said, and his company is donating a solar system for the adjacent community. The firm received a required environmental study last month, and just two weeks ago, Eustis city commissioners voted to sell the acreage BlueChip wants for $1.2 million.
Unfortunately, folks who are watching the project won’t see many changes until the first of the year. The project still requires an approval on zoning, and that’s set for a preliminary discussion Dec. 4 and then an approval from county commissioners Dec. 20.
Still, the company hopes to install five megawatts of panels before January on the part of the property that has all its approvals.
“That’s almost the size of what Orlando Utilities Commission built — they’ve got 5.9 megawatts,” Gonzalez.
After that, it’s full steam ahead, Gonzalez said.
Watchers of the project first will see racks being installed. Three poles hold a rack, and each rack holds 24 panels. Four screws hold each panel. The company will be hiring 24-hour security to protect the investment, which tops $5 million so far.
Gonzalez said the company had 35 employees two years ago. Now it has 210, and 200 of those are in Lake Mary. When the Sorrento project gets under way, he expects to hire another 100 people, some in construction and others in energy production.
How cool is this? And how does Lake go about getting more industries like this one?
Of course, like everything in this world, solar farms have their pros and cons. The high cost of solar components has for many years kept serious investors out of the field. But more recent studies show that the cost is expected to drop by half, maybe in the next decade.
There’s the issue of building transmission lines for the really massive projects. Those lines are seldom popular. But solar companies have caught the trick of building smaller operations near adequate lines.
And the kind of system BlueChip is using — photovoltaic, which converts sunlight directly to energy — is far better for Florida than the solar thermal systems, which require the use of the precious natural resource of water.
This is precisely the kind of industry that is a benefit to Lake and its workforce. Here’s hoping that zoning authorities and county commissioners give the company the boost it needs through approvals to start building.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake.