The South’s Clean Energy Disruption
This is a tale of three very different Southern communities: a rural county in central Texas, a coastal area of South Florida, and a city in western Tennessee. But each is grappling with its ability to combat and adapt to the climate crisis, with how to generate electricity while doing what’s best for the local economy, and with the overall well-being of its residents. Pollution-busting efforts tailored to the needs of individual communities are a vital component of the climate fight, and many more are needed—especially given the most recent warning of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states the chance to keeping the rise in global average temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius, and thereby avoid the most catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change, is diminishing rapidly.
Since people first began extracting coal, oil, and gas from Appalachia and the Gulf Coast more than a century ago, the South has been a bastion for the fossil fuel industry. Yet signs—like the canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the unstable oil prices, and the death of King Coal—point to a changing energy landscape in this part of the country, especially as Texas continues to go big on renewables. The South’s solar capacity is also expected to more than double by next year, and the Biden administration’s efforts to create jobs by investing in clean energy infrastructure would benefit the region tremendously. As these changes and others accumulate into a larger systemic shift across the South, one thing seems clear: Fossil fuels are on their way out.
“There’s no doubt that the southeastern part of the United States is going through a renewable energy revolution,” says Chris Castro, a clean energy expert and director of sustainability and resilience for the city of Orlando. “We’ve seen a significant rise in the trajectory of renewables and, based on the forecast, it’s only continuing to grow.”
That said, some old and familiar hurdles, such as monopolized utilities and climate denial, remain, and the transition to clean power is playing out differently across the South.
Broward County, Florida
Home to approximately two million people, including the 183,000 residents of Fort Lauderdale, Broward County sits on the southeastern coast of Florida, where sea levels could potentially rise almost a whopping three feet by 2060. Knowing the climate crisis is at their doorstep as they experience higher tides, climbing temperatures, and increased flooding, public officials set a goal to cut carbon emissions 80 percent below 2007 levels by the year 2050—all while generating 20 percent of municipal energy from renewable resources. The challenge, says Jennifer Jurado, chief resilience officer for Broward County, is figuring out how to do it.
Florida is the country’s second-largest producer of electricity after Texas and relies most heavily on natural gas—but it’s not called the Sunshine State for nothing. One promising tool, Jurado says, is community solar. Broward County is already offsetting 60 percent of its emissions from its municipal buildings through the SolarTogether program, recently launched by Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). The program allows the county to invest in utility-scale solar projects without having to physically host the farms within its already overdeveloped landscape. By the end of the year, as FPL expands its solar farms (it plans to install 30 million solar panels by 2030), officials hope to start offsetting all of the county’s greenhouse emissions.