VERO BEACH, Fla.—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.
Many have called this a risky bet. 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.
But Florida’s power providers and their state regulators 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 tug-of-war is already 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 roughly 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.
Already, coastal communities such as Miami Beach are spending millions of dollars raising roads and erecting pumps to combat flooding from sea-level rise. September’s Hurricane Irma wreaked billions in damages after gaining strength in an abnormally warm ocean. Local officials face difficult choices as they try to tackle threats that climate-fueled changes pose to needs as basic as drinkable water and flushable toilets.
Nonetheless, 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 cost-effective decarbonization. That’s the climate equivalent of building two average-size coal plants. Leaks of the potent climate-warmer methane from infrastructure feeding the new projects will increase the emissions hit.