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FPL turns solar plants into wildlife havens

Steve Rogerson
November 21, 2017

Florida Power & Light (FPL) is working with conservation group Audubon Florida to make its solar power stations a safe habitat for native plants, birds and pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies.
Through the Solar Sanctuary partnership, FPL and Audubon are working with the Florida Wildflower Foundation, Florida Native Plant Society, Wildlife Habitat Council, local Audubon chapters and others to design and implement site-specific environmental enhancements that will make FPL solar sites bird- and pollinator-friendly havens.
"Our beautiful state has an abundance of sun and great diversity of native plant and animal species," said Julie Wraithmell, interim executive director of Audubon Florida. “FPL's solar sites are transforming large sections of land. What is exciting is that each site is being designed to make the best use of areas that can benefit wildlife. We are so happy that FPL is taking the time to consult with Audubon and other organisations to make the best decisions about native plants. These Solar Sanctuaries will have benefits for generations.”
FPL is on track to install more than 2.5 million solar panels at eight new solar power plants across Florida that will be operational by early 2018. The site of each facility is being designed to allow a significant amount of the land to be planted with native grasses, trees, shrubs and vines. Plants are being chosen to provide food for birds and pollinators. Quality wetlands are being preserved, which also provide habitat for birds.
"We are proud to partner with Audubon and other dedicated environmental groups on this wonderful project," said Eric Silagy, president and CEO of FPL. "When Audubon Florida approached us with this idea, we knew it was something our company wanted to be a part of. We are firm believers in the notion that amazing things can happen when non-profits and the private sector work together constructively, and I believe this project will set a great example for others to follow."
The FPL Coral Farms solar energy centre in Putnam County and the FPL Loggerhead solar energy centre in St Lucie County are the first sites with approved plans to become Solar Sanctuaries.
"FPL's Solar Sanctuary site in St. Lucie County will help move us towards more green energy production and less environmental impact while maintaining efficiently priced energy for residents," said Eva Ries, president of the St Lucie Audubon Society. “Serving many social and conservation priorities at once, these projects are supported by the St Lucie Audubon as an example of forward-thinking priorities in the energy sector.”
In addition to the environmental benefits, the eight solar power plants are expected to produce estimated net lifetime savings of more than $100m for FPL customers by reducing fossil fuel use.
"We commend FPL for recognising the value of collaborating with local organisations like ours in customising the use of native plants for birds and butterflies in diverse landscapes and enhancing the solar fields for a more natural environment," said Donna Halleran, vice president of the Pelican Island Audubon Society in Indian River County, which is home to two of the sites – the FPL Indian River solar energy centre and the FPL Blue Cypress solar energy centre.
The other solar energy centres under construction that will be included in the Solar Sanctuary programme are FPL Horizon in Alachua and Putnam Counties, FPL Wildflower in DeSoto County, FPL Barefoot Bay in Brevard County and FPL Hammock in Hendry County.
Each solar power plant encompasses several hundred acres of land to host roughly 330,000 solar panels. However, unlike other types of development, each solar site leaves much of the land virtually untouched, including areas beneath and around the solar panels.
Concrete is not used to secure the panel systems to the ground and, once construction is complete, the facilities require minimal human activity, making them suitable for sharing with birds and pollinators. The goal of the Solar Sanctuary partnership is to leverage this land to further enhance its environmental benefits.

Plans for each Solar Sanctuary designation will vary from location to location based on input from local conservation groups that will advise FPL on important birds, native wildlife, other natural resources and specific benefits that may be achieved by using certain types of plants and supplemental habitat aides.
Some enhancements that will be implemented include:

  • Creating pollinator-friendly habitat areas to provide ample food sources for insects, songbirds and hummingbirds;
  • Planting vine species to provide a food source for native and migratory hummingbird species;
  • Planting native vegetation as a buffer near property edges, which will provide food sources and nesting habitat for a variety of songbirds such as bluebirds and wintering sparrows;
  • Preserving wetlands and surface waters to provide habitat for a variety of wetland-dependent wildlife species such as frogs, snakes, turtles and wading birds;
  • Protecting existing gopher tortoise habitat, including burrows; and
  • Planting native groundcover and shrubs to provide additional food and shelter for birds and wildlife.
The programme will also provide an added benefit to agricultural communities that neighbour many of the solar sites by attracting native pollinators that help farmers grow crops. Additional plans may include building bird perches and bird boxes and creating water recharge opportunities.
This partnership builds on FPL's pilot pollinator programme, which was initiated at three solar power plants that were completed in 2016. Approximately 15 acres of pollinator habitat were designated at the FPL Citrus solar energy centre in DeSoto County, FPL Babcock in Charlotte County and FPL Manatee in Manatee County. Pollinator-friendly wildflowers and other native plants were planted to provide fertile habitat for butterflies, bees and birds.
Florida ranks ninth in the nation for solar resource – the strength of the sun's rays – making it suitable for solar energy production. Already one of the cleanest electric utilities in the nation, FPL projects that solar will outpace coal and oil combined as a percentage of the company's energy mix by 2020.
From 2016 to 2023, the utility plans to add more than ten million solar panels across Florida, including approximately one million installed at three new plants in 2016 and more than 2.5 million at eight plants under construction.
FPL has been studying and operating solar in Florida for more than three decades. In 1984, FPL commissioned its first universal solar installation, a 10kW PV facility in Miami that helped the company's employees gain experience with the then-emerging technology. Over the years, it has continued to test and operate a wide variety of solar technologies.