Second FPL solar power generation facility in Walton County on way to approval

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

PAXTON — Florida Power & Light can begin work on its second solar power generation facility in Walton County as soon as it provides a flood elevation study to the Walton County Planning Department, under terms of a unanimous Wednesday decision by the county's Technical Review Committee.

The committee, comprising representatives of various county government departments and chaired by Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter, approved the development order for the Pecan Tree Solar Energy Center — set to be constructed on 762 acres southeast of Paxton off E.M. White Road in the north county — contingent on getting the flood elevation study in hand.

Background on the project:Walton commissioners approve settlement with Gulf Power for solar power facility

Previous coverage:Crestview residents protest FPL rate hikes at City Council meeting

Because the solar power generation facility is classified as a minor development, the TRC decision clears the way for the project to proceed.

At Wednesday's meeting, FP&L engineer Brandon Eckard said a flood elevation study is underway, and he committed to keeping construction of the project above base flood elevation levels across the parcel.

The Pecan Tree Solar Energy Center will cover approximately half of a 1,600-acre parcel that, in turn, is part of a 4,500-acre assemblage of adjacent properties where FP&L plans to locate three more solar facilities.

This diagram of acreage southeast of Paxton shows part of the area where Florida Power & Light plans to develop solar energy generation facilities. The Pecan Tree Solar Energy Center, given conditional approval on Wednesday by the Walton County Technical Review Committee, will cover roughly the top left area of the diagram.

The four projects will join an initial project already approved by the county, the Chautauqua Solar Energy Center on nearly 900 acres at Harrison Road and Brown Road, also southeast of Paxton and about 3 miles east of U.S. Highway 331.

The solar panel footprint at the Chautauqua site will cover almost 400 acres. Construction is underway, and the 74.5-megawatt facility is expected to come online sometime this year, an FP&L spokeswoman said recently. A facility of that size can power 15,000 homes annually, according to an online Florida Power & Light primer on solar energy.

Earlier:FPL pursuing second solar power facility in Walton County

The five FP&L solar projects are part of what began as a joint effort by FP&L and Gulf Power to install 30 million solar panels across Florida by 2030. FP&L and Gulf Power officially merged Jan. 1, and the project is continuing as an FP&L initiative.

Prior to FP&L's pursuit of the Pecan Tree Solar Energy Center and its upcoming solar projects in the Paxton area, the county and Gulf Power — which was pursuing the Chautauqua Solar Energy Center project prior to the merger with FP&L — got involved in some legal wrangling that had a direct bearing on Wednesday's action by the Technical Review Committee.

A diagram of the proposed Pecan Tree Solar Energy Center planned by Florida Power & Light in the northern end of Walton County shows the proliferation of solar panels across the site. The project got a conditional approval Wednesday from the Walton County Technical Review Committee.

Walton County commissioners initially rejected the proposed Chautauqua project based on concerns that solar facilities could not be located in agriculturally zoned areas, despite Carpenter's assertion that such projects were allowed in those areas.

The 3-2 vote in December 2020 also was made in the face of significant opposition to the project from nearby residential property owners.

Gulf Power challenged the commission's decision in court, and in July of last year the county agreed to settle the dispute. Under terms of the settlement, solar facility projects now are considered "minor developments" under county planning rules, meaning that they can be approved by the Technical Review Committee and can move forward, provided requirements for construction permits and other permissions are met by the developer.

Prior to the settlement, projects like solar power generation facilities were considered "major developments," meaning that in addition to getting through the TRC, they had to get approvals from the Walton County Planning Commission and the Walton County Board of Commissioners. 

Interestingly, the settlement agreement was developed at the same time as state legislation signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis established that solar facilities are a permitted use in agricultural land use categories in local governments' comprehensive land-use plans and within some locally designated agricultural zoning districts.