Leesburg’s ‘Smart Grid Capital’ a, well, smart idea

Leesburg’s ‘Smart Grid Capital’ a, well, smart idea

Lauren Ritchie

COMMENTARY

December 26, 2010

In September, this column took direct aim at Leesburg’s plan to spend up to $165,000 on an economic-development proposal involving its airport.

This bad idea involves spending money to pin down whether the city can get scheduled commercial airline service (it can’t) and what type of aerospace companies the city realistically could attract to create jobs (none).

The city has dumped millions of dollars into the airport over the past decade, and Leesburg’s airfield hasn’t changed a whit. It remains now what it was then — a nice general-aviation airport that likely could attract more leisure flyers if it had a restaurant to which planes could taxi.

But attracting Boeing or one of its sub-contractors? Not likely.

Despite the city’s blind spot about its airport, a second plan is brewing in the mind of City Manager Jay Evans, and this one deserves the support of residents and the backing of city commissioners.

It is an idea à la John Drury, the Tavares city administrator who grabbed a thin string and kept pulling it until — sometimes through sheer will — he began yanking “America’s Seaplane City” out of Lake Dora. That city certainly has seen some remarkably positive change in the past few years, and one of the key successes was attracting a seaplane-manufacturing business to give legitimacy to the seaplane theme.

‘Smart Grid Capital’ has a ring

Evans’ idea involves making Leesburg “America’s Smart Grid Capital,” and there’s a lot of sense to it.

The city owns an electric utility whose profits pay for roughly half of its general governmental operations. Leesburg is in the midst of a $20 million conversion to a “smart” electric system, and $14 million of it came in the form of stimulus money from the federal government to buy and install what are dubbed “smart meters.”

When installed, the meters will allow the smart homeowner — no one is forced to participate — to control electric consumption.

“We’ll set up pricing plans, and customers will be able to choose. My home, where my wife homeschools kids and there are four people in the house all day, is very different than the home where the husband and wife leave the house to work,” Evans said. “Customers will be able to pick a plan based on their knowledge of the data and depending on whether they have access to in-home automation and whether they want to do it.”

Theoretically, a resident’s electric bill ought to drop if he or she is willing to work at it.

The project is going more slowly than the city expected. The paperwork required by the feds has been overwhelming, and since the smart meters operate by sending information wirelessly, a more complex security system than expected has been required to prevent cyber attack.

The city expects to have purchased and to begin installing the meters by late next summer.

Smart use for juicy parcel

So how does this all connect to about 300 acres that the city has available near its sewer plant and sprayfields at Florida’s Turnpike and County Road 470 just south of town?

Evans laid it out: “Why cannot Leesburg be a center for the smart-grid industry? How about a Florida smart-grid technical park? We are within an hour and 15 minutes of the University of South Florida, which has the Power Center for Utility Exploration. That’s where they are working with Progress Energy on a smart-grid project they have.”

Indeed, why not?

It’s more plausible than a seaplane city, after all, and has more possible tentacles to explore. Already, Evans has sent an inquiry to USF, asking whether the city and the university could partner on smart-grid projects.

The city has tried for several years to sell the 300 acres that it can spare from the 3,300 it owns at the site and uses for sewage operations. The only viable offer it got was someone who wanted to pay $1.2 million for 75 acres to build a campground for motor homes. That’s hardly great economic development for such a juicy piece of land, and the city used its smarts when it said no.

“The concentration of jobs needs to be there, and the number of jobs per acre is important, too,” Evans said. “For some industrial uses, you may not have many employees. Also, the type of industry that comes in hopefully will not be a large water consumer.”

What about a solar-panel farm?

The possibilities are almost endless. Scour the Internet, and you’ll find that smart-grid technology and sales are exploding, and unlike many other industries, this one has willing investors. No other area in the United States seems to have laid claim to smart grid, so Leesburg wouldn’t be fighting in the way it would to claim Boeing from Seattle, for example.

The energy ideas don’t need to stop at smart grid. What about using some of that property for a solar-panel farm? Some investors in Lake County have been musing over the idea for several years. And Leesburg, with its utility system, would be in instant customer, not to mention possible partner. Throw in the 185 miles of fiber-optic network, and the city is starting to look mighty fine to green-energy businesses.

What about approaching First Green Bank, whose stated mission is to help environmentally focused business grow in Lake County? Together, could the city and bank officials start running down possible companies to come here and start pitching them?

The challenge: Be aggressive

Shall I go on? Nah.

One thing is clear: Leesburg cannot sit and wait for companies to choose this area. The key is to get aggressive — specifically aggressive.

First, however, the city needs to endorse the idea and put some bucks into it. The $165,000 the city is wasting on the airport would be far better spent on this idea.

Lauren Ritchie may be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake You may leave her a message at 352-742-5918.

Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

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