In the continuing struggle to overcome competitive disadvantages, one path for greater penetration of renewable power into the nation’s energy markets might be to join the entrenched fuel sources with which it has always struggled to compete.

While some clean fuel proponents may consider it sacrilegious to embrace traditional fossil fuels, the essence of alternative power is innovation, and innovation invariably leads to hybrids.

Recognizing this opportunity, one of the nation’s largest energy providers has embarked on an ambitious project to blend solar and natural gas generation in a facility that will raise the bar for others of its kind.

The Florida Power and Light Co. (FPL) Group’s Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center will be the first hybrid solar facility in the world to connect to an existing combined-cycle power plant. Located north of West Palm Beach, it will be constructed on top of what is already the nation’s largest fossil-fuel power plant.

The concentrated solar-power facility will consist of an array of large mirrors, which capture the sun’s rays and direct them into a tube where they heat oil. The heated oil will then generate steam to run an electricity-producing turbine.

The project offers many advantages. The utility can harness the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of the two power sources for maximum effect. During the hottest times of the day, when the sun is at its brightest, and demand for electricity to run air conditioners is at its greatest, concentrated solar power will allow the utility to augment its fossil fuel-powered generators at minimal cost and pollution. At night, when solar generation essentially shuts down and demand decreases, natural gas-fired power can carry the load.

By constructing the solar facility atop an existing facility, the company also saves money that might be otherwise needed to finance the construction of generators and transmission lines.

Construction on the project began in December 2008 and is expected to be completed at the end of this year, at a cost of $476 million. When it is finished, the 75 megawatt facility will be the largest solar thermal plant outside of California.