MARTIN COUNTY – Solar energy could soon come full circle here with the first new photo-voltaic facility in more than 12 years if the County Commission concurs with the Local Planning Agency’s unanimous Jan. 3 recommendation for approval of a 74.5-megawatt plant just north of Indiantown.

Planner Catherine Riiska told LPA members during the early January meeting that staff members recommended approval of the project proposed for a 566-acre site located on the east side of Allapattah Road approximately one and a half miles north of Warfield Boulevard.

“The site has a future land-use designation of agriculture and contains areas zoned both A-2 and AG20A, both of which are agricultural zoning districts consistent with the underlying future land use,” she said. “The applicant has proposed development standards that meet or exceed the minimum standards of both of these districts: Wetland and upland preserve areas are being established and will be managed in perpetuity in conformance with a county-approved preserve area management plan. Staff has verified that the proposed final site plan meets all of the applicable requirements of the Martin County Land Development Regulations and Comprehensive Growth Management Plan.”

Amy Brunjes, Florida Power & Light regional manager for external affairs, highlighted the fact her company was the world’s top producer of renewable energy and had chosen the same area 12 years ago to site its first solar power plant.

“We have always had a strong partnership with Martin County, and in 2007 we actually built our first solar plant out in Indiantown at the Clean Energy Center, a 25-megawatt project,” she explained. “That was a different technology: It’s a solar-hybrid facility where we have the natural gas plant out there with 25 megawatts of solar. When he sun was out, we took our foot off the gas pedal, and when the sun’s not out, it reverts to the natural gas. We’ve come a really long way since then. We started in 2009 with 25 megawatts and, by the end of last year with the eight solar plants that we added, we were up to 935 megawatts of solar.”

FP&L Senior Project Manager Krista Hendricks then emphasized that the company individually tailors each plant to the specific property selected for it and particularly referred to the four inaugurated by the firm last year in Indian River, Putnam and Desoto counties.

“I want you to see how different the configurations are across the different projects -- this allows us to design these facilities to work along with the local environment,” she said. “Each of these sites are 75 watts of clean, emission-free energy, and typically these sites require about five to seven acres of lands per megawatt, so that translates to about 370 to 500 or so acres of land for a 75-megawatt solar site. The Sweetbay Solar Energy Center will start construction this year pending all approvals from Martin County and will come online in 2020.”

Ms. Hendricks also emphasized the positive and non-intrusive attributes of such plants.

“These farms really make great neighbors and are highly compatible with ag use,” she added. “Once in operation, these sites create no dust or other effects that would impact a farm or another adjacent community, and they use no water or fuel to operate. They’re unmanned facilities, which places no demand on public service, and we only do occasional maintenance. These are quiet energy centers -- we only use lights to do any maintenance in our collector yard and substation.”

These projects inject an infusion of capital into the local economy during the construction phase, she explained, hiring up to 300 construction workers to build the support system for the 271 acres of solar panels and the accompanying 1.8-acre substation. Company officials met with the neighboring property owners to gauge the sentiment of area residents and to protect some of them included a landscape buffer along the southern property line to shield the plant from an adjacent residential subdivision.

“Back in May of 2018 we held an open-house event where we invited all abutting property owners within 1,500 feet of the property as well as the entire Little Ranches community to this event,” Ms. Hendricks said. “We had a very good turnout, about 50 people showed up, and overall it was a very positive meeting. Since that meeting, we’ve had multiple one-on-one meetings with abutting property owners to address any concerns they have regarding drainage or any questions that they had. I strongly feel that we’ve answered most, if not all, of their questions.”

Board Member Donald Foley III said he initially had some environmental concerns but ultimately felt FP&L addressed those issues adequately.

“I was concerned with the environment and some of the native bird species that could have been impacted by this development,” he said. “Now that I’ve seen your presentation and how FP&L feels about the conservation and the environment, I feel a lot better.”

Board Member William Flanagan admitted that he’d visited the site prior to the meeting and noticed a number of existing powerlines already on the property.

“I’m not smart enough to say megawatts and voltage and carrying, but would there be an intention to increase the number of powerlines with that much electricity?” he asked.

Ms. Hendricks allayed his fears.

“We do not intend to install any new powerlines for this facility,” she replied.

Chairman James Moir expressed some concerns with what he viewed as potential positive and negative effects from the planned perimeter fencing around the project.

“I guess there are two issues with fencing,” he explained. “One is that it’s no longer a connected piece of property -- it’s now isolated from an environmental perspective -- but it’s also safe from human use and the potential shock potential for that DC power that’s either in the ground or coming from the panels.”

Additionally, he worried about potential heat coming from the panels and affecting both animal and human life, but Ms. Hendricks nipped those concerns in the bud as well.

“We have done different types of fencing to allow wildlife to get in and out,” she explained. “We have not had any issues with preventing wildlife from traversing the sites. The photo-voltaic panels are meant not to reflect, but to absorb energy from the sun. They are not hot, so they don’t give off any thermal heat. We’ve not experienced any issues with any avian species at any of our sites since 2010 when we built our first solar project.”

Chairman Moir then expressed his backing for such renewable energy projects, emphasizing the need to clear the air on such concerns.

“I’m truly a big fan and I think that it’s really good,” he said. “All of the thoughts that come into one’s mind want to be expressed.”

The Board then voted unanimously to recommend the Board of County Commissioners approve the project. The County Commission will formally hear the proposal beginning at 1:30 p.m. Jan 29 in the Commission Chambers at the Martin County Administrative Center at 2401 SE Monterey Road in Stuart.

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