Florida Power & Light and its subsidiary Gulf Power came up with a unique solution to disposing of the boxes and packaging for the 200,000 to 250,000 solar panels recently installed at its Cotton Creek Solar Energy Center in Escambia County and Blue Spring Solar Energy Center in Jackson County.
Approximately 10,000 refrigerator-sized boxes along with their accompanying wooden pallets were turned into mulch and reused on-site at both of the energy centers.
“The mulch is a great stabilizer and promotes the grass to grow, which causes the mulch to decompose even faster,” FPL Senior Project Manager Matt McCord, who came up with the solution, said. “After a year’s time, it’s gone back to nature, and you can’t see it anymore. The wildflowers and other vegetation are planted to transform the solar energy sites into stewardship sites that support wildlife and pollinators.”
They used a large grinder to chew up the wooden pallets and cardboard boxes, splitting the nails into a container. The output was then fed out of the grinder on a conveyor belt, creating a mound of mulch perfect for supporting grass and wildflower seeds.
It’s not only environmentally friendly, but it also saves money as it is more expensive to discard the tons of packaging into landfills and legally burn the wooden pallets. These industry standards cost about $180,000 per site, McCord said.
“All of that takes manpower and trucks,” McCord said. “The new method costs about $50,000 per solar site. Plus, we’re not burning or sending this material to the landfill. We’re working to reduce our carbon footprint through our 30-by-30 solar plan and the retirement of coal. By the time we’ve completed the 30-by-30 plan, you’re talking in the ballpark of $10 million in savings. This is good for the environment and saves our customers money.”
The mulching operation at Cotton Creek and Blue Springs went into full operation in the summer of 2020. It is now the company’s standard for disposal of packaging as it has been used at 16 more sites in 2020 and 2021. FPL’s 30-by-30 plan calls for the installation of 30 million solar panels statewide by 2030, so this is a solution that will be used quite often over the next 10 years.
“The mulching project is an innovative way to do both but also has the added benefit of supporting our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint,” Gulf Power Vice President Mike Spoor said. “We’re excited that Cotton Creek and Blue Springs solar energy centers are the first solar sites in Northwest Florida to use this method. Not only are we producing clean, emissions-free energy from the sun, we’re also disposing of the panel packaging in an eco-friendly way.”
Both Cotton Creek and Blue Springs will be operating in January 2022.