Sunshine State lags on solar power, doubles down on natural gas
VERO BEACH —The irony is rich. The Sunshine State taps the sun for less than half a percent of its electricity while making two-thirds with natural gas — a fuel that Florida must pipe in from other states.
Some see it as risky gambit. A coastal state already suffering punishing effects of global warming shouldn’t keep building power plants that pump even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Sierra Club warned. Natural gas prices are low now but will inevitably wallop customers down the road, the Florida Industrial Power Users Group predicted. As far back as a dozen years ago, when gas supplied less than 40 percent of the state’s electricity, then-Gov. Jeb Bush said utilities needed to stop depending so heavily on it.
Florida’s power providers and their state regulators, however, haven’t reconsidered their strategy. In fact, they’re doubling down on it.
More gas-fired electricity generation is under construction or planned in this state than in all but four others, U.S. Energy Information Administration records show. The building boom includes not only these plants but also a hotly contested tri-state pipeline to feed them. The new construction follows a 15-year surge in gas-fueled electricity production in Florida that topped the nation, outstripping even major gas producers such as Texas and Pennsylvania.
Never in its history has the industry’s key regulator, the state Public Service Commission, rejected a utility gas plant. The agency has repeatedly raised concerns about increasing reliance on gas, but its actions have moved the state further in that direction.
Now, even as they’re finally accelerating solar development, Florida’s electric utilities still expect to construct more than twice as many new megawatts powered by gas in the next decade as by the sun. Near Vero Beach on Florida’s east coast, this struggle is on display.
On land next to citrus groves, workers are installing more than 300,000 panels for a new Florida Power & Light solar site, one of eight the utility has under construction. Together, they’ll nearly triple FPL’s solar-powered portfolio. But about 20 miles west, the company is building a gas-fired plant — among the three biggest planned nationwide — that will power far more homes than all those solar sites combined.
The Florida power users group, representing large industrial electric customers, was among those trying to convince the Public Service Commission two years ago that the $1.2 billion-dollar Okeechobee gas plant wasn’t necessary. Solar would be a cheaper, smarter alternative, the group argued.
“The proverbial ‘You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket’ comes to mind,” Jon C. Moyle Jr., the group’s attorney, said at a hearing.
FPL, the largest Florida electric utility, said falling costs are now making solar competitive and this power source should rise to 4 percent of the company’s electricity mix by 2023. That’s a significant hike. But it falls far short of top solar utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric in California, already at 13 percent last year.
Gas remains key to FPL’s plans. Its switch from oil and coal over several decades has been an unalloyed positive, bringing cheaper electric bills, cleaner air and fewer climate impacts than many other power providers, said Matt Valle, FPL’s vice president of development.
“We’re completely unapologetic about making that shift,” he said.
But gas plants developed in Florida haven’t simply displaced dirtier fuels. They’re also serving growing areas or replacing older gas plants, expanding the reach and lifespan of fossil fuels in a region especially vulnerable to their side effects.
Florida’s three largest planned gas projects — two plants under construction and one plant FPL aims to rebuild — would pump out roughly 9 million tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide per year over their decades-long operating lives, according to the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, which promotes cutting carbon emissions.
The state wouldn’t need so much gas if it prioritized energy efficiency to avoid expensive new power plants. But energy conservation costs Florida utilities money because they sell less power. Three years ago, the Public Service Commission cut conservation goals by 90 percent after the utilities argued they were no longer economical. This year, a national energy-efficiency nonprofit, comparing the largest electric utilities on conservation efforts, ranked Florida’s among the worst.
Rooftop solar is another alternative. The state could offset nearly half its electricity needs this way, according to a 2016 federal analysis. But that too would threaten utilities’ profits because they don’t own those panels or the resulting power — their customers do. In 2014, the companies convinced the Public Service Commission to ax the state’s solar rebate program. Last year, they spent more than $20 million promoting a purportedly pro-solar ballot amendment widely panned as precisely the opposite.
Even without more conservation or solar, the state could have ensured that utilities build only those power plants Florida needs.
The commission said it carefully weighs all its decisions to balance customers’ and utilities’ interests. Its deputy executive director for technical matters, Mark Futrell, said commissioners have seen value in — for instance — replacing old gas plants with more efficient new ones requiring less fuel for the same amount of energy.
But the watchdog group Integrity Florida concluded in a recent report that the system is effectively rigged in favor of the companies. Floridians representing consumers, businesses, environmental interests and state government echoed that finding in nearly 40 interviews with the Center for Public Integrity. They pointed to the millions of dollars the major utilities spend on campaign contributions that flow to state officials, many with a say over appointments to the five-commissioner agency, and the 96 lobbyists working on those companies’ behalf.
“The power the utility industry has . . . is enormous,” said Mike Fasano, a Republican who served in the state Legislature for two decades, “and anyone that tries to tell you differently is lying.”
The natural-gas state
The story of natural gas in Florida is also a story of FPL, which serves roughly half the state’s customers. The company, based in Juno Beach, started down this road to wean itself off oil. Then natural-gas prices jumped more than fivefold in the U.S. between early 1999 and mid-2008, with some of that increase ending up in utility bills.
In 2004, as FPL again sought to pass on higher fuel costs to customers, its officials said they would diversify their electricity generation to blunt such swings.
Instead, FPL doubled its reliance on natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing — fracking — unlocked gas from shale, and that supply rush tanked prices beginning in 2009. Suddenly gas looked like a smart choice. Fuel diversity, not so much.
FPL said its strategy has saved consumers $8.6 billion in fuel costs and prevented 108 million tons of carbon emissions since 2001.
Its residential customers pay 19 percent less for each kilowatt-hour of electricity than do average Americans, according to federal figures for 2016. If the Obama-era Clean Power Plan were in effect, FPL said it would already be in compliance far ahead of schedule — with coal just 3.5 percent of its mix and falling, its rate of carbon emissions is 30 percent better than the national average. Even replacing old gas plants with new ones substantially reduces those emissions, FPL said.
A worker prepares the ground for more solar panels at Florida Power & Light’s Indian River solar-energy center near Vero Beach, Florida, on Oct. 10, 2017. FPL is nearly tripling its solar-powered portfolio with the eight sites it has under construction, but the state still falls far short of other sunny locales for solar usage.