Finding sites for millions of solar energy panels sparks a land rush in rural Florida as new installations consume larger swaths of acreage.
As it implemented plans to expand solar power in Florida last year, Florida Power & Light made a huge land purchase, even by its own standard as the state’s largest utility. It paid a California investment firm $76.7 million for 10,330 acres of farmland in St. Lucie and Indian River counties on Florida’s east coast.
It’s been a big 17 months for FPL land buys. All told in 2022 and through May 2023, FPL spent $348.5 million to buy 40,704 acres from Palm Beach in the Southeast to Okaloosa in the northwest Panhandle, according to a Lakeland-based real estate firm that tracks Florida land sales, SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate.
Solar energy, the most land-hungry form of power generation in Florida, is reshaping the state’s landscape in looks and use.
Utilities buying land for solar compete, mostly in rural areas, against agriculture, timber, conservation interests — and other solar developers — for the state’s limited land supply.
The scale of Florida’s conversion of agriculture land to power-producing acreage is expected to continue as the state pivots to generating more solar power. Company-wide, FPL plans to add 20,000 megawatts of solar generation in the next 10 years. Two other investor-owned utilities — TECO and Duke Energy — and Florida’s municipal power outfits plan another 6,500 megawatts, according to their 10-year plans filed with the state Public Service Commission.
Combined, the utilities’ megawatt ambitions would require another 356 solar power plants covering roughly 278 to 333 square miles of Florida — more than the size of Orlando and Tampa combined. That’s some 62 million to 78 million solar panels added through 2032.
The utilities have even grander ambitions through 2050, according to their public pledges of moving toward zero carbon emissions by then. In FPL’s case, it anticipates a total of 90,000 megawatts from solar by 2045. For 90,000 megawatts, FPL would need 1,208 solar plants and more than 200 million solar panels if it follows previous plant-size practice. At current acreage usage, FPL by itself would own for solar 604,000 to 724,800 acres. That equates to 944 square miles (larger than Duval County) to 1,133 square miles (a little less than Hillsborough County) or around 2% of Florida’s acreage.
The significant land consumption comes because utility-scale solar plants take at least 10 times the land per unit of power as coal or natural gas, according to a Brookings Institution 2020 study.
Solar is “consuming large amounts of land, not small amounts,” says Dean Saunders, a former state legislator from Polk County and founder of the SVN real estate firm, a broker of large tracts of Florida land for both conservation and development. SVN represented TPG of San Francisco in the sale of the St. Lucie and Indian River land to FPL. “If we’re going to have solar power, which we all like in theory, and we want to encourage it, it’s going to go where it’s going to go. And it’s going to go where it’s less expensive to put it, which is on land that is out and away from things, not subject to competition from development. That’s largely going to be agricultural land, timberland.” With solar, the land is “not going to be running cattle or farmed or having timber on it. Certainly won’t be houses — the good news is, it won’t be houses. It’s a tradeoff and we have to consciously make those decisions.”
A Florida Atlantic University study published in 2022 reviewed 45 existing and planned utility-scale plants in Florida and found 45.7% went up on grassland and pastureland, 34.9% on agriculture land and 13.2% on timberland. The projects totaled 27,688 acres, or about 615 acres apiece.
Environmental groups generally welcome solar, though some have concerns about the amount of farm and pastureland being consumed for new power installations. “Our focus needs to be on a fair and just transition to distributed, rooftop solar. It is important to cover rooftops before we’re covering land that could be used by wildlife and people,” says Ragan Whitlock, a staff attorney for the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity.
Florida’s experience with solar dates back decades with small pilot projects. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama came for the commissioning of an FPL solar plant in DeSoto County, at the time one of the nation’s largest facilities, though its capacity was only a third of the standard FPL solar plant today. In 2010 in Indiantown in Martin County, FPL opened what it then called the state’s first utility-scale solar project. Since then, the state has added nearly 80 plants capable of generating nearly 75 megawatts each provided the sun is shining on them. (Solar developers aim for just under 75 megawatts, because above that level, the state’s rigorous power plant siting law governs development.) FLORIDA TREND estimates the utility-scale solar projects already in Florida occupy 40,000 to 48,000 acres.
Solar at present is the most cost-efficient means to deliver reliable new power generation, the utilities say. That’s only partly due to a long-term trend toward dropping costs. Solar in Florida, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, cost about $1,279 per kilowatt hour in 2021 to develop — cheaper than all but some natural gas generation options. But that was before the taxpayer subsidies now available in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, the spending bill advanced by the Biden Administration.
The act provides tax breaks and incentives that can cut 30% from the cost of typical development, says John Godfrey, senior government relations director at the Arlington, Va.-based American Public Power Association. Other incentives available under the 2022 act for certain projects — such as replacing a coal-fired plant — can increase the savings to 50% and even higher.
The taxpayer assistance underwrites solar projects of all sizes, but the easiest path to increasing solar generation is for utilities to buy relatively cheap land and build mass solar arrays. “There certainly has been a race to do that in Florida,” says Linda Ferrone, chief customer and marketing officer with Central Florida’s Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC). Developing large, single-site projects is faster with lower construction and maintenance costs — an advantage over smaller, widely-distributed arrays, explains Justin Kramer, OUC’s manager of emerging technologies.
A caveat to the cost-savings argument: “That assumes you find land that is inexpensive near transmission lines,” Ferrone says. “People are wising up. ‘I’ve got a piece of agricultural property. It’s right next to transmission lines. It’s worth something.’ The cost of land is going up.”
The power companies search out large, flat sites for their utility-scale projects. They want to be near existing transmission lines to avoid the cost of securing right of way. Duke spokesperson Audrey Stasko says land cover, topography, nearby infrastructure, neighboring uses, community sentiment, local government siting and permitting requirements and environmental considerations all play a role in choosing sites. Utilities have purchased pastureland, row-crop land, timberland and burnt-out orange groves devastated by citrus greening disease.
“Finding large tracts of land at a cost-effective price is the biggest challenge in developing utility-scale solar power. Any industry that seeks large tracts of land could be seen as a competitor in the market,” says TECO spokesperson Cherie Jacobs.
The price utilities pay for land for solar varies by location and site attributes. (FPL generally buys and owns its sites. Duke and TECO lease or purchase land for solar.) FPL’s identifiable land acquisitions in 2022 averaged $7,826 per acre, according to SVN’s research.
“The numbers (utilities) pay are all over the board,” says SVN’s Saunders. “It just depends on how bad they want it and where it is.” He says solar buyers pay “a little” over market rate because they often insist on options. That ties up the land, so owners demand a premium in the deal.
Land prices vary by existing and anticipated use. For comparison purposes, in Florida, ranchland overall in 2022 that sold in major transactions — over 500 acres — averaged $5,473 per acre; sales for conservation averaged $2,640 per acre; conservation easements averaged $1,908 per acre; timberland went for $2,474 per acre; and fruit, vegetable and sod farmland averaged $10,391 per acre, according to SVN’s annual Lay of the Land report. By comparison, land for residential development in 18 Central Florida counties sold for $51,606 per acre, the report said.
Duke leased 700 of rancher Slade Williams’ 1,200 acres in Fort White, north of Gainesville, to install 245,000 solar panels that became operational in 2020. It allowed Williams’ ranch to remain viable even as he cut his herd from more than 1,000 head of cattle to 100, a level that would not be financially sustainable without solar lease income. “The solar project allowed us to maintain ownership of our property,” he told Duke for one of the company’s publications. “We see things like the solar farm as a savior for us. … I’m proud that our land is still in production in an environmentally friendly way and that we that we haven’t had to sell it for development.”
FPL spokesperson Jack Eble says the utility views solar development as “a form of land preservation.” Solar facilities have a 30- to 35-year life cycle so building a solar plant “is preserving that land for the next 30 to 35 years,” he says.
Utilities aren’t specific on where the new solar facilities will be located beyond 2025 construction dates. Utilities file 10-year plans with the Florida Public Service Commission, but their outline of where they plan to site plants to meet the state’s surging population grows vague beyond that year. This year, for example, Duke completed four utility-scale plants and has filed county-specific plans with the PSC for four more by mid-year 2025 for a total of 599 megawatts of solar power. After those plants, its 10-year plan lists “TBD” for site locations while projecting to add more than 3,100 megawatts of solar by year-end 2032. At 500 to 600 acres per 74.9 megawatts, that’s roughly 41 more solar sites totaling from nearly 21,000 to nearly 25,000 acres for Duke. FPL’s plan uses “unsited” for its plans later this decade.
How exactly the 10,330 acres purchased last year fit in its plans is unclear. It could hold enough solar panels to make it the biggest solar power plant in the nation. FPL says it’s too early to speculate on ultimate output. It says a portion could go for other energy infrastructure. Indeed, it said in a statement, “It’s important to note, simply because we aquire land, it does not necessarily mean that land will be used for solar energy.”
The pace of solar land acquisition also is an open question, but OUC’s experience is instructive. It had planned to purchase power from a developer of utility-scale solar until the 2022 federal law changed the economics. Now, OUC is considering building its own plant among other options. But Ferrone says 500- and 600-acre plants can’t be Florida’s only option or solar will “gobble up” the land and make it too expensive. Smaller, scattered sites, while costlier to develop, offer the utilities the advantage of not losing a significant amount of power generation when a site is under cloudy skies, says OUC’s Kramer.
Like other utilities, OUC looks to rooftops and covered parking lots to place solar panels. It built 123 kilowatts of “floating” solar panels on a pond at Orlando International Airport. It’s also working with the state transportation department on using retention ponds by spending $3.7 million to put a 3,700-panel, 2-megawatt array at one body of water in Central Florida, the largest retention-pond-based solar install in the Southeast U.S., it says. Florida has considerable roadway-related retention acreage available for solar.
Rising land prices could change the current economics of producing solar power for utilities. Technological advances also might curb the solar land appetite, and the industry is evolving rapidly. Just a few years ago, it took 100 panels to generate 30 kilowatts. Now 82 panels can produce the same amount of power, says OUC’s Kramer. The growing use of bifacial panels, which capture sun energy on front and back, means even more power generation per acre.
Technological change also isn’t confined to solar, nor are the clean energy incentives in the 2022 federal spending bill. Florida isn’t suitable for on-land wind power but other potential energy sources such as hydrogen are being explored. Should solar no longer prove to be “the most cost-effective option in the country,” FPL’s Eble says of the 10,300-acre purchase, “FPL will look into the best way to use this site, as well as other company-owned land.”
Solar, Florida’s top source of renewable energy, currently provides 6.3% of Florida’s electricity. By 2032, it will supply more than a quarter.
Florida’s path to more solar power lies through Florida’s rural areas.
This map shows the location of existing and planned utility-scale solar facilities that are capable of generating 70 megawatts to 75 megawatts of power. Most are 74.5.
Utilities also have a portfolio of smaller plants not shown here. TECO, for example, as of year-end 2022 was second in Florida in solar power production. It has six smaller plants totaling 283 megawatts in Hillsborough and Polk counties — equal to approximately four more utility-scale facilities. Duke has four smaller plants and FPL has two. The state’s municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives have 20 smaller plants, averaging 8 megawatts.
During the past two years, Florida Power & Light has installed 12 solar energy plants in seven of Northwest’s 12 counties. Construction of six more solar plants is scheduled to begin later this year, says FPL spokesperson Marshall Hastings. Each of FPL’s solar plants is built on sites averaging 500 acres. When all 18 existing and planned plants are online, Northwest Florida will have more than 14 square miles dedicated to the production of solar energy.
How do you keep 500 acres covered with expensive solar panels free of vegetation that thrives in a subtropical climate and might grow to block the sun? Some utilities are relying on sheep as a low-cost solution.
FPL has launched a pilot program using sheep to control vegetation at its new Blackwater River solar plant in north Santa Rosa County. Tampa Electric also has employed the four-legged landscapers at its Big Bend solar plant in Apollo Beach.
Unlike goats, sheep will not jump on the panels, do not chew wires and can easily graze under and around the panels. — Carlton Proctor
Duke says each of its 74.9-megawatt plants displaces 1.2 million cubic feet of natural gas. It says in 2022 the plants saved customers $30 million. FPL says its solar saved $375 million in fuel costs last year.
Environmental group Audubon Florida says that “thoughtfully planned” solar can deliver native habitat and wildlife corridors, minimize wetland impacts and provide foraging and breeding habitats. FPL has “done some really innovative stuff,” says Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida executive director. “We need renewable energy. That doesn’t mean just solar. We need all of it if we’re going to move the needle. It has to be the right use and the right location. They’re quiet, they’re clean and have no traffic. In a lot of places, solar is a great neighbor to have.”
Solar is good for the tax base and requires little in the way of government services. Example: In St. Lucie County, Property Appraiser Michelle Franklin says the taxable value of a 451-acre parcel was $124,261 in 2021 as agriculture land (which gets tax breaks) and then jumped to more than $2.0 million once FPL put a solar plant on it. Electric utilities generally are among the biggest property taxpayers in Florida counties. In St. Lucie, FPL accounts for 60% of the tangible personal property tax roll, Franklin says. FPL has a nuclear plant on 1,132 acres on Hutchinson Island and another 16,500 acres spread over 54 parcels. Ten of those parcels already have a solar plant and more are expected to be installed.