Gulf Power, FPL save money turning solar panel packaging into mulch

Special to the Press Gazette / USA TODAY NETWORK

PENSACOLA — Most of us will face the task of discarding or recycling the many boxes, bags and wrapping paper after the holidays this year. Imagine dealing with disposing of nearly 10,000 refrigerator-sized boxes and the same number of wooden pallets. 

That’s how much packaging was left after the 200,000- to 250,000-photovoltaic solar panels were unwrapped to be installed on each one of Gulf Power’s and Florida Power & Light’s large-scale solar energy centers, including at Cotton Creek Solar Energy Center in Escambia County and Blue Spring Solar Energy Center in Jackson County.

A chipper makes mulch out of solar panel  boxes recently in Florida. Gulf Power and Florida Power and Light made it a standard way to handle solar panel packaging after and employee discovered how it benefited the environment.

Always on the hunt for solutions, FPL Senior Project Manager Matt McCord came up with an environmentally friendly, cost-saving way to deal with the mountain of refuse by repurposing it and returning the materials back to the Earth.

After solar panel installers bolted the solar panels into their frames at Cotton Creek Solar Energy Center in McDavid and Blue Springs Solar Energy Center in Marianna, a large grinder chewed up the wooden pallets and cardboard boxes, spitting out the nails into a container. A steady spray of finely chewed-up cardboard and wood spewed out of a conveyor belt, creating a mound of ready-to-spread mulch that is perfect for supporting the growth of grass and wildflower seeds.

“The mulch is a great stabilizer and promotes the grass to grow, which causes the mulch to decompose even faster,” said McCord. “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.”

Mulching replaces the costlier and less eco-friendly methods of discarding the tons of packaging into landfills and legally burning the wooden pallets. These industry standards cost about $180,000 per solar site, McCord explained.

“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 30-by-30 plan calls for the installation of 30 million solar panels statewide by 2030 to reduce carbon emissions and create a more sustainable energy future, while meeting the growing electricity needs of customers.

Gulf Power Vice President Mike Spoor said FPL always encourages and supports its employees in finding and implementing cost-savings ideas that save customers money and improve processes.

“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,” 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.”

The mulching went into full operation in the summer of 2020 after McCord learned from local agriculture farmers that cardboard and wooden pallets are good carbon sources for agriculture when composted.

Initially, McCord looked into different options – composting offsite and selling the compost and composting on the solar sites and hauling waste off. 

“That’s when I thought, what if we mulch it on-site and never move it?” he said. “Let it compost and go back to nature. All we have to do is spread the mulch out. And in a few days, we put seed down and we have grass growing, and we have a very cheap and environmentally friendly solution. After a year’s time, you can’t see the mulch anymore because it goes back to nature.”

FPL’s environmental team vetted and advised on the process based on federal and state regulations. McCord said all boxes and pallets verified to be free of paint and chemicals in accordance with the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program regulations can be mulched.

McCord worked with an agriculture company to test the mulching process at the Lakeside Solar Energy Center in Okeechobee County in 2019.

“It was a success,” McCord said. “We rolled out the mulching process to 16 more sites in 2020 and 2021. Now it is the company’s standard of disposing of the packaging.”