Live Oak — Hamilton County has often been seen as a diamond in the rough, renowned for its spring, rivers, and down-home charm.
But the county may soon also be known for its ongoing efforts in renewable energy development. A renewable power development team called Hamilton Energy Resource Organization, or HERO, plans to break ground early next year on a 400-acre photovoltaic solar power system in Jennings, the Hercules Solar Park, where at least 50 megawatts of power will be produced.
"Everything is going well," said Hamilton County Economic Development Director Milton Smith. "The system should be up and running in a year."
Group president Jack Levine said it will be two years before the solar plant will be fully operational, but only one year before the plant will be well enough underway to produce power.
Conventionally, solar power has not always been thought of as a reasonable power source for Florida because of the unpredictability of the weather and the regularity of rain clouds.
Levine spoke to the Jasper News by phone from California Wednesday, where he was meeting with solar panel manufacturers.
"I'm here speaking with different manufacturers, trying to determine what's the most efficient technology out there," he said. The company plans to use panels with built in devices that track the sun's rays.
Levine said HERO plans to buy the equipment by December of this year, and begin the construction of the first 5 megawatts by the first of 2011.
The project will cost between $350 and $400 million to complete the 50-megawatt facility, one of the largest planned solar projects in the state, said Levine.
Recently, company has recently adopted further ambitions.
"We have applied to increase to a 100 megawatts plant," said Levine. If Levine's plans see reality, the Hercules plant will be one of the largest in the country. "It will give Hamilton County a national presence."
Levine said the company has been planning quietly behind the scenes for some time and began getting aggressive in September of last year.
Since, Levine said he has discovered an unbelievable enthusiastic community where renewable energy is concerned.
"The people of Hamilton County are making this possible," he said. "It has been a pleasure to work with a community so focus on growth and want it to happen."
HERO has applied for two county grants to help with the costs, and Levine said they are confident the county and community will continue to support them.
The company is currently in the feasibility study phase with Progress Energy, according to Levine. He said if everything goes according to plan, the projected completion dates are attainable.
Levine said his company wants to he a hero for the local economy, as well as the environment.
The plant is expected to employ approximately 250 people during the two years of construction, said Smith. Levine said several full-time jobs will be available after completion, and the company plans to hire locally, as long as people with the right skills can be found.
"We asked ourselves, what can we do that will be fruitful and good for the community and the environment," said Levine.
Levine said HERO plans to be a integral part of Hamilton's future as they continue their plight for increased usage of renewable energy.
"Solar is the future, renewable energy is the future," he said.