ST. PETERSBURG — Keeping a 246,000-square-foot warehouse full of beer icy cold can rack up a monstrous power bill.
That's why executives at Florida's largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products began thinking about getting off the grid with a new storehouse under construction south of Valpak near Interstate 275 in north St. Petersburg.
To help chill the 9.5 million cases of mass-market and craft beers that Great Bay Distributors delivers to bars and stores each year, the family-owned company is installing an array of 5,000 solar panels as part of the roof; it will become the largest private solar power system in the state.
Company CEO Ron Petrini said achieving that distinction never crossed his mind when looking into the $2.5 million system. Reducing the warehouse's monthly power bill by 40 percent was the biggest selling point, he said.
“When we started looking at what we were going to be putting up and how rather large it's going to be and the fact that it's really sitting out in the middle of a field with no trees, no shade, just sunshine when it's sunny, it was kind of a natural decision to say, 'Well, let's look at solar,'” Petrini said.
When completed early next year, Great Bay's 1.5-megawatt solar power system will displace a 1.1-megawatt rooftop array at Darden Restaurants Orlando headquarters as the largest.
In about six years, Great Bay expects its energy savings to offset the initial cost of installing the system.
Although renewable energy advocates say Florida's old-guard utility companies have dissuaded the state's government from adopting incentives to help with the upfront investment in solar power systems, the raw benefits of producing on-site power has proved incentive enough for many business owners.
Since installing a 486-panel solar array in June at the headquarters of Tampa mortgage banking firm First Housing, CEO Doug McCree says the summer power bill at his 17,000-square-foot building on South Willow Avenue has gone from about $3,000 a month to $600.
“I've always been sort of enthralled with the concept of solar energy and being able to reduce or eliminate the power bill. It just gives you a lot of certainty in your operating costs,” McCree said.
The $550,000 price tag for the system was slashed by a 30 percent federal tax credit that remains in effect through 2016.
The system produces 85 percent of the building's energy needs, but McCree expects to be sending electricity back into the grid during the mild winter months.
Selling companies like Great Bay and First Housing on the cost savings of solar power has become easier in recent years for Tampa-based Solar Energy Management. Solar energy 20 years ago was cost prohibitive — about $60 a watt — but as the technology has become more widespread, the price is near $1.98, putting it on par with other types of power, said Scott McIntyre, Solar Energy Management's CEO.
“It is less expensive to save energy than it is to produce energy,” he said.
Despite the abundance of natural light in the Sunshine State, though, Florida has no policies in place that encourage the manufacturing or installation of solar and other renewable technologies.
That was a point Eckerd College climatologist David Hastings and other scientists made last week at a meeting with Gov. Rick Scott.
The purpose of the gathering was to reinforce to the governor the eminent dangers of man-made climate change.
Hastings said there's great potential to make incentives for solar power production in Florida, and a new federal mandate that requires the state to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 38 percent by 2030 means the government must encourage renewable sources.
The state needs to support renewable energy sources while placing a higher price on those that harm the atmosphere, he said.
“Putting heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, polluting the atmosphere, has real costs and yet those costs are not incorporated into our economic system,” Hastings said.
Business owners such as Petrini see energy costs rising in the long-term, and investment in solar energy looks like the most sensible way to grow.
The beverage company has run out of space at its 10-acre site at Ulmerton and Starkey roads for the more than 400 brands of beer, water and soda, ranging from Budweiser to craft brewers like 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg.
There's room to expand again on the new 96-acre plot, which appears likely with the booming popularity of craft beer in the Tampa Bay area.
Great Bay hopes to remain at the top of local beer distribution with a territory covering Pinellas, West Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, but Petrini doesn't expect the company will keep its title of biggest private solar power system for long.
“I think down the road somebody will certainly come up with one that is larger, and probably should,” he said, “because, my gosh, we have an abundance of sunshine down here, so why not take advantage of it?”