Solar Panel in Bartow

Solar panels at the Bartow Solar Farm link with the nearby transmission lines to feed into the city's electric grid.

Polk County has a new crop — and it's not olives, hemp, bamboo or a new breed of cattle.

It's not even alive.

It's steel and screens and is spread across more than 1,000 acres scattered countywide. It doesn't need water, good soil or a host of people to tend to it.

It's solar power.

It needs the sun, but that's about all — well, that and land, steel, high-tech panels and miles of cables.

Currently, there are at least five solar fields in the county, mostly located in the southern section, where power companies and one city have found tracts of land that are suitable for the rows and rows of sun-capturing panels.

Tampa Electric (TECO) has four solar fields in Polk County: in Payne Creek, near Bowling Green; Peace Creek; Bonnie Mine; and Lake Hancock. All are either in, or near, Bartow.

The city of Bartow also has a solar field off Gaskin Road, south of the Bartow Municipal Airport.

All told, these five fields total more than 1,000 acres and, according to TECO, the four fields they operate can provide enough power for thousands and thousands of homes.

Bartow's plant is used to augment the service and is already resulting in lower power bills for their customers, says Bartow Electric chief Brad Hiers.

The TECO fields represent an investment of about $300 million, says TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs, but the utility is spending a total of $850 million in solar construction in the next few years. The remaining fields are located in neighboring Hillsborough County.

TECO, Jacobs says, is expanding into the solar generation “because our customers asked for it.”

TECO serves about 85,000 customers in Polk County and also provides power to other entities. Duke Energy, which serves eastern Polk, does not have any solar fields in Polk County, but does have two just outside the county's boundaries—one in Reedy Creek and a second in nearby Osceola County.

Bartow, which buys its power from nearby Orlando Utilities, stepped into the solar field business recently, when it worked with an equipment provider to build its 40-acre Gaskin Road field.

The public-private partnership keeps the solar-generated power at a fixed-rate for the next 25 years, protecting the city from future price increases. City Commissioner James Clements says the field helps offset some of the city's bulk power purchases and keeps rates lower.

“The installation of this facility's solar panels will help the city generate energy to supply the needs of about a thousand homes annually, furthering our goal to conserve natural resources,” the commissioner says.

All the fields have only one critical issue, explains Jacobs.

“They have to be near our transmission lines,” she said. “By not having to install lines, or minimal connector lines, these fields are not only generating income, but are lower cost to install and maintain.”

While the fields cropping up are an overall boon to the environment, according to most reports, one Bartow City Commissioner had an issue with the TECO field north of the city.

Commissioner Trish Pfeiffer said the location of that field “isn't the most attractive gateway to the city.” She added that the project also robbed the city of potential residential and business development that could have been a boost to the city's coffers.

Meanwhile, the completion of the Lake Hancock 350-acre field will boost TECO's number of solar panels closer to the 6 million mark, which is what its $850 million solar investment is expected to include.

Not to be outdone by its neighbors, Lakeland Electric also has five solar farms which sit on about 88 acres, company staff say. Florida Power and Light, one of the state's other power producers, doesn't have any fields in Polk, but concentrates its solar fields along the east coast, with some in DeSoto and Manatee counties.

None of these solar fields are transmitting to individual homes, but act as feeders into nearby grids, where the output is fed into transmission lines and ultimately into homes and businesses.

Another advantage of the solar fields is they are low maintenance. They do require routine maintenance, but primarily operate without on-site staff.

While there may be no people on-site, TECO says their fields will have periodic ovine assistance. TECO staff say they "hire" herds of sheep to maintain the grass on the farms.

Another step taken involving the animal world, according to Jacobs, was the design of the solar panels used. She said that earlier solar panels were reflective and that birds sometimes mistook them for water and flew into the panels, creating damage.

Engineers also have designed the fencing to keep out foxes, raccoons and coyotes and to keep them from digging their way into the fields.

The field designs are also fitted with sophisticated measures to cope with lightning strikes, TECO says. The solar panels and the posts on which they are erected have their own grounding systems and the network is tied by copper wires that links the grounding network.

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