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With the scorching summer heat now beating down upon us, the sizzling Florida sun is actually doing more than providing us with great vacation weather: it's giving us a way to create sustainable energy.

Duke Energy has revealed that it will be building a new 5-megawatt solar facility near the Walt Disney World Resort, according to a company press release.

The 20-acre facility will include 48,000 solar panels and will be shaped to resemble the company's iconic Mickey Mouse logo, according to a press release sent out by Disney.

This facility — which generates enough energy to power 1,800 homes — is part of several other plans by Duke Energy to increase and advance its solar technology.

"Right now, we are using renewables for about three percent of our power generation needs," said Sterling Ivey, a Duke Energy spokesman.

Some of that renewable energy is being generated at facilities at the University of South Florida and Florida State University, where the company has formed partnerships to research solar energy.

At USF in particular, Ivey said that new research with solar facilities equipped with battery storage capacities is providing evidence of a promising future for sustainable power.

"It's going to help us use that solar energy when we need it the most," he said. "We're moving in the right direction."

Ivey said he is optimistic about establishing similar programs at UCF, and while Duke Energy is currently having conversations with university officials about a future partnership, nothing formal has been decided.

For now, UCF has been making its own plans to help promote sustainability and renewable energy on campus.

The university has several small photovoltaic systems similar to the ones Duke Energy plans to use at its new facility already installed on campus.

"I think it is a good thing for utility companies to diversify their fuel source," said David Norvell, UCF's energy manager and director of the Department of Sustainability and Energy Management, about the energy company's newest solar project. "We support clean renewable energy for Florida."

Norvell said the university has introduced a climate action plan that states 15 percent of the school's energy will come from renewables by 2020.

"We have roughly 200 kilowatts being generated presently, which is a fraction of a percent of our energy needs," he said.

Norvell also said there are many benefits to switching to renewable resources, like zero carbon emissions on campus, and the university is aggressively pursuing opportunities that will increase its onsite solar productivity.

The main campus is not the only place working to expand UCF's sustainability. The Florida Solar Energy Center, a UCF research institute in Cocoa, is also helping the school advance toward a more eco-friendly campus.

The FSEC, put in place by the Florida legislature in 1975, researches not only solar energy, but also a myriad of other subjects, including distributed generation systems and power grid integration, high performance buildings and alternative fuel sources.

Currently, the institute is involved with the university's plans to build a new campus in Downtown Orlando.

"As planning for the new Downtown Orlando campus is underway, and using Arizona State University as a model, UCF and the City of Orlando working together will ensure a sustainable campus," said Sherri Shields, director of communications for the institute.

She also said that it's great to see companies like Duke Energy increasing the solar capacity in Florida. With more capacity, the prices will continue to drop, and solar will become a more economically viable option for many Americans.

Yet, Shields said we're not quite there.

"Florida is the sunshine state. We rank third in solar potential, but only 13th for installed solar capacity," she said. "We have a big gap to fill if we want to live up to our name."

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Deanna Ferrante is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.

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