Earlier this week, I attended the Florida Energy Summit, an annual conference that brings together segments of the energy industry, academia, and government to discuss the future of energy in Florida. http://www.floridaenergysummit.comI went to listen and learn as an organizer for the Sierra Club’s Florida Beyond Coal Campaign.
I realized that this particular conference would be dominated by interests that are still bound to old polluting energy sources such as coal and natural gas. Still, I wasn’t quite ready for the magnitude of this shortsightedness.
The business-as-usual perspective was reflected in the very first panel on the future of Florida’s energy infrastructure. Despite the potential of our state to become a solar energy leader, the presupposition was that we should increase our reliance on natural gas.
(Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, tweeted that Putnam has "come up with some strategic ideas," but that "this investment in natural gas will backfire as dependence."
As an energy consumer in Duke Energy’s service territory, it frustrates me no small amount that three-fourths of the electric power Duke Energy supplies in Florida is produced by gas-fueled plants. As with coal, buying natural gas for power sends billions of dollars out of state. Further, if natural gas prices increase at some point over the next few years, relying so heavily on natural gas will drive power prices up, hurting Florida’s businesses and ratepayers. Also not insignificant is that natural gas – like coal – contributes to climate change.
But if Duke continues on its current path, natural gas use could increase over the next several years.
Why? Although Duke Energy is stalling, it will at some point have to retire the two oldest coal-burning plants at Crystal River. That’s a good thing that the Florida Beyond Coal Campaign is working to accelerate: Duke Energy’s Crystal River power plant is one of the nation's dirtiest and is Florida’s top source of toxic mercury pollution.
Retiring these coal units by 2016 will clear the path to clean, local energy. However, if Duke does as it has indicated, it will build a large new gas-burning plant. This again begs the question: why not clean, homegrown solar in the Sunshine State? It is confounding that solar represents less than one percent of Duke Energy’s electricity production here.
To me, there is a clear and compelling case for Duke to move toward solar. In addition to providing energy that is good for human health and the environment, solar production boosts Florida’s economy. A nationwide study by the Apollo Alliance found that clean energy such as solar generated 40% more jobs per dollar invested than coal. The upshot is that when communities transition from fossil fuels to solar it creates jobs and bolsters the local tax base.
And yet only one participant on one panel at the Florida Energy Summit had the opportunity to talk about building this future.As I drove home, I started looking forward to future Florida Energy Summits. It may take a little time, but it will be satisfying to watch the landscape change.