Clever Green

Florida is starved for electricity. Some eco-renegades are growing their own.

To get to No Name Key, travel the Seven Mile Bridge over a turquoise expanse of Florida Bay and turn right at the first stoplight after Marathon, on Big Pine Key. Drive slowly in consideration of the key deer flitting through the underbrush. Continue past a strip mall housing a Winn-Dixie, a key lime pie shop, and the Big Pine Key nature center, where unlucky members of the endangered species -- including a minuscule key faun -- can be seen in glassy-eyed, taxidermied proximity.

Follow the signs and the No Name Pub will appear on the left, at the foot of the bridge to No Name Key but technically not on the island itself. Tourists have plastered the bar's interior with signed dollar bills, stapled to every wall and even hanging from the ceiling, where the money flutters in the draft of the air conditioner. Tan drugstore blonds with jean shorts, smokers' coughs, and white sneakers -- just the kind of waitresses one hopes to find in the Florida Keys -- serve pizza and beer.

After lunch, cross the bridge to No Name, a place long known to harbor nonconformists. According to Joy Williams's travel guide, The Florida Keys, its first resident was a Russian immigrant who trip-wired guns in the underbrush to repel unwanted visitors. In the early Sixties, Cuban freedom fighters trained here, and the place is sometimes mentioned in connection with John F. Kennedy conspiracy theories. Residents say the Cubans left after one of them shot and killed another. He said he had mistaken his comrade-in-arms for a raccoon. In more recent decades, the island was a stopping point for many a bale of marijuana.

rich lillash
rich lillash

Today's inhabitants seem to channel the spirit of that grumpy Russian homesteader. KEEP OUT PRIVATE ROAD reads the sign at Paradise Drive. NO TURNAROUND NO KEY DEER THIS STREET reads the one at the entrance of Bahia Shores Drive. And something is different about the rooftops peeking out over the tree canopy. Most are made of white metal. One appears to be the crown of a geodesic dome. And affixed, at an angle, are dozens of glossy black panels.

There's not a power line in sight.

In the past year, much of America seems to have decided the time for environmental consciousness has arrived. Wal-Mart began promoting compact fluorescent lightbulbs. The U.S. Supreme Court declared carbon dioxide a pollutant, legally controllable by the Environmental Protection Agency. Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson rode in hybrid cars to the Oscars.

But as pop culture paints itself in shades of green, Florida is poised to become more engorged with fossil fuels and uranium than ever. The state has faced sharp increases in demand for electricity. Nineteen states used less electricity per capita than Florida in 2005. Florida Power & Light estimates its 4.4 million customers use approximately 30 percent more on average per household than they did twenty years ago, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts the state population will increase 80 percent, to more than 28 million residents, by 2030.

That means more power plants. A new natural gas unit goes online this summer at Turkey Point, the South Miami-Dade facility that also houses two nuclear reactors and two natural gas/oil-powered units. FPL had hoped to build by 2016 two more natural gas units in western Palm Beach County and a massive coal-fired "power park" in Glades County, but the Public Service Commission rejected the coal plant June 5.

Environmentalists applauded, but the veto means that FPL's efforts to build another nuclear power unit will intensify. The utility has already told the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it will apply for a license to build another reactor in 2009, and Turkey Point is the preferred site.

Local environmentalists see this plan as a failure of both imagination and will. They say Florida's power companies should work harder at "demand-side management" -- lowering electricity consumption through more programs to encourage efficiency, a dubious proposition for an investor-owned, profit-making utility.

Environmentalists also say we should rethink the ways we've generated electricity since the dawn of the industrial age -- via highly centralized, interconnected systems of plants, high-voltage lines, and transformers designed to instantly fulfill even peak loads. As those loads have increased, equipment has aged. And the system is inefficient; some eight percent of electricity generated is lost in transmission.

The alternative -- embraced by states like California -- is called a distributed resources model. The philosophy is that every willing participant can generate a little electricity to take a load off the grid, or put a little back. A few photovoltaic panels and a passive solar water heater on the western side of every roof in Miami might eliminate the need to, say, add another nuclear reactor to Turkey Point.

FPL decries this thinking as naive. But the Floridians pursuing renewable energy sources on their own don't really care what FPL thinks.

Alicia and Mick Putney live on No Name Key, across the bridge from No Name Pub, at the end of No Name Road. The Putneys came from the Bay Area, where Mick taught sociology at San Jose State University. "We were there in the Sixties," he said. "The whole thing -- summer of love, antiwar...." But then he retired, and the couple boarded their sailboat and took to the sea, which they called their home for years.

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