Florida’s biggest coal plant is switching to natural gas. So why aren’t climate activists cheering?

Steve Taylor at rally opposing new TECO plant at Gaslight Parks in Tampa last Friday night.

The utility running Florida’s biggest coal-burning power plant is hoping to get a positive vote this week from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet to convert from coal to natural gas.

The utility says its goal is to make the plant more environmentally friendly. Yet environmental activists in Tampa are opposing the proposal, saying that the company isn’t being proactive enough as the Earth’s climate crisis intensifies.

At stake is a request by Tampa Electric Company (TECO) to spend $853 million to convert part of its Big Bend Power Station in Hillsborough County to natural gas. In May, a state administrative law judge ruled in favor of the investor-owned utility, recommending that DeSantis and the Cabinet – serving as a “siting board” that signs off on power-plant projects – give TECO the go-ahead when the issue comes before them this Thursday in Tallahassee.

But doing so without conducting a more thorough review would be a big mistake, says Tampa U.S. Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor, who now chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in Congress. She says that TECO should have to go through a “need determination” before Florida’s utility regulator, the Florida Public Service Commission.

“Electricity generation across America is moving to clean energy and Florida’s future should not be tied to dirty, carbon-polluting sources that cause severe impacts and massive costs to the climate crisis,” Castor wrote to DeSantis and the Cabinet last week. “A complete review can result in a better decision.”

“TECO is behind the curve and should not be doing this,” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp. She says that 10 years ago, or even five years ago, the plan would make sense. But not now. “It would be foolhardy, wasteful and not sustainable for them to go forward with this gas plant at this point,” she says.

Last Friday night at a park in downtown Tampa, about 40 activists participated in a rally organized by the Sierra Club protesting the proposal. Although gas does burn cleaner than coal, it still traps heat in the atmosphere. It also leaks from pipelines as methane, a planet-warming pollutant more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Climate change advocates say the need for quick reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has never been more urgent, citing a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists last week that said that Floridians should expect to endure more and more sweltering days where temperatures average more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gonzalo Valdez, the Beyond Coal organizer for the Florida Sierra Club, said at the Tampa rally that DeSantis should vote no and ask TECO to go back to the drawing board.

“Governor DeSantis has called himself many times a Republican environmentalist, so we would like to see that happen,” Valdez said. “This is going to be his first real test about the climate, and if he really is about creating a better economy for the state, protecting the state from future climate impacts, saving us dollars and cents in real terms, he would very, very strongly oppose this plant from TECO.”

TECO maintains that a “need determination” only applies to new power plants, not changes at existing plants.

“This project will improve the land, water and air emissions at Big Bend,” announced Nancy Tower, president and chief executive officer of TECO, in May  2018. TECO officials say that expected emissions reductions would be significant over the life of the project – to the tune of at least 18.5 million tons of the so-called “greenhouse” gases which trap heat and make the Earth hotter. Tower also said that the company intends to add six million solar panels in 10 new photovoltaic solar projects in the next few years, which TECO says will make it the public utility with the highest percentage of solar power in Florida by 2021.

But a closer look at TECO’s own documents adds some confusion about how green the company truly intends to go in the future.

“In 2023, when the Big Bend modernization project is complete and all 600 MW of solar is installed, only 2 percent of our energy will be generated from coal,” TECO spokesperson Cherie Jacobs told the Florida Phoenix last week. “In 2023, more of Tampa Electric’s energy will be generated from solar than coal.”

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. According to the utility’s ten-year plan, 2023 is a temporary low mark for TECO’s coal production. In the years after 2023, the company’s  percentage of coal increases, while solar decreases. In 2028, the last year noted in the plan, coal rises to 12 percent of TECO’s production, while solar goes down to 6.6 percent.

David Pomerantz, executive director of the national Energy and Policy Institute think tank, says while some public utilities are moving more quickly than others to reduce their carbon output, it’s almost unheard of for an energy company to announce that it is going to increase its use of coal in upcoming years.

TECO spokeswoman Jacobs attributes the rise in coal use in the utility’s future plans to “population growth and price,” but adds that it’s just a forecast and is subject to change.

Questioning the utility’s bona fides on cutting carbon emissions, critics note that TECO is one of the few investor-owned-utilities that has not produced a specific carbon reduction goal for the future.

For example, Duke Energy set a goal to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent by the year 2030; Florida Power & Light’s goal is a 67 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 (as compared to the national average).

And TECO?

“We do not have a specific carbon reduction goal,” admits Jacobs. “Tampa Electric is becoming clean and greener…We are progressing at an appropriate pace in a responsible way, to keep prices affordable for our customers.”

Alissa Jean Schafer, a research and communications specialist with the Energy and Policy Institute, says that’s not good enough.

“How are we to understand that you’re moving in the right direction when, without a goal, we’re not even sure what that direction is?” Schafer asks.

The Big Bend plant has four coal-fired facilities. TECO intends to jettison Big Bend 2 and convert Big Bend 1 exclusively to producing natural gas. Units 3 and 4 will continue to have the ability to burn either coal or natural gas.

Daniel Cohan, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University in Texas, says while he understands the sentiment that TECO isn’t moving fast enough to reduce carbon emissions, the idea that energy companies should stop using natural gas in the next decade is just “naive and unrealistic.”

“You will need some fossil sources at least until 2030, and I would much rather see that be an efficient natural gas… plant rather than a fifty-year-old coal plant that’s causing the coal ash ponds and the sulfur pollution and nitrogen pollution and carbon pollution,” he says. ”I think the utility company really does have a point if they’re still going full ahead on solar efficiency.”

Yet environmental activists say it’s not a proactive strategy for TECO, which provides power to more than 750,000 Floridians. The company’s service territory includes all of Hillsborough County and portions of Polk, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

They note that not more than 30 miles south of the Big Bend plant, in Manatee County, Florida Power & Light – the state’s biggest energy provider – is making plans to build what the company says will be the world’s largest solar-powered battery system. FP&L officials say that the Manatee Energy Storage Center will speed up retirement for two natural gas units at a nearby power plant, and save customers more than $100 million, while cutting carbon emissions by more than a million tons.

Advocates cite other examples around the country of energy companies moving forward, like in Indiana, where the Northern Indiana Public Service Company announced last September that it would retire the majority of its remaining coal-fired generation plants within five years, and its entire fleet within 10 years, and replace them with renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Xcel Energy, which operates in eight states, announced last December it intends to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2035 from 2005 levels, and to fully “decarbonize” by 2050.

Knowing that the time to set renewable energy goals is now, a growing number of Florida communities in the past year have been leading where the state isn’t by imposing deadlines on moving to a cleaner energy future.

Pinellas County’s Safety Harbor last month became the ninth city in the state to commit to a 100 percent clean, renewable energy future. The City Commission approved a resolution to eliminate fossil fuels for city operations by 2035 and community wide by 2050.

Nationally, 29 states have established renewable energy goals, and eight others have set voluntary goals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii and California are the only two states which have committed to setting a 100 percent renewable electricity portfolio by 2045.

And Georgia Power, the main energy company for the state just north of the Sunshine State, just announced that it will add 2,260 MW of new renewable generation to its energy mix.

Florida, meanwhile, has done nothing on this front, which is why Castor is imploring DeSantis and the Cabinet – CFO Jimmy Patronis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried – to request that the Public Service Commission give a deeper review to TECO’s proposal.

“The Sunshine State lags behind many states in alternative energy and now we lag behind our smaller neighbor to the north too,” she writes. “Your decision on the TECO plant can serve as a new beginning for Florida that avoids the escalating costs and most harmful impacts of climate change.”

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