Clever Green

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

The company has also done a savvy job marketing itself as eco-friendly. It claims on its blue and green Website that various incentive programs to increase energy efficiency have saved FPL from building an estimated ten new power plants.

Then there's the Best Business Plan Ever: Have your customers fund most of your renewable energy initiatives by paying an extra $9.75 per month.

Local solar power gurus let loose sardonic giggles when the subject of FPL's voluntary Sunshine Energy Program comes up, in which customers can pay a premium to offset their carbon footprints. For every 10,000 participants to sign on, FPL has committed to building 150 kilowatts of solar energy plants.

rich lillash
rich lillash

FPL spokeswoman Sharon Bennett said 32,000 people participate in Sunshine Energy and claimed FPL does not profit from it in any way -- aside from gaining an environmentally responsible image on its ratepayers' dime. Proceeds from the program have funded a 250-kilowatt solar array in Sarasota County (minuscule compared to FPL's total output of 20,981 megawatts) and the installation of solar panels at places like the Miami Museum of Science, South Miami Senior High School, and MAST Academy.

Though the program encourages investment that will make such technologies both better and more affordable in the long run, in FPL's eyes it's not worth bankrolling that sort of encouragement themselves. "To produce the same amount of electricity as a medium power plant, it would take 45 square miles of solar panels," said FPL's Bennett. In other words, proponents of renewable energy need to pay the same premium they would to purchase organic food and hybrid cars.

The Sunshine Energy Program money not spent on paltry quantities of solar power is used to buy carbon credits from a company called Green Mountain Energy, which purchases and funds electricity from renewable sources. Because there's no wind power or large-scale solar power in Florida, 60 percent of the electricity projects Sunshine Energy ratepayers are funding are biomass -- either incinerated agricultural waste or garbage -- not quite the vision of windmills on rolling green hillsides that ratepayers might have wanted.

John Holtz, director of Green Mountain's operations in the eastern United States, said nondisclosure agreements prevent him from revealing the exact location and nature of the biomass plants in Florida, but the company claims all of its energy, including that produced from biomass, is certified under the standards of Green-e, a certification regime that is generally accepted by environmentalists. The remaining 40 percent of Sunshine Energy money goes toward wind power generated in Texas. None of this energy is actually arriving in local homes, but again, the program does serve to create demand that might encourage Wall Street to invest in renewable energy.

Both Holtz and Bennett hinted at future incentives for solar power on the horizon. Though it won't be thanks to corporate largesse, individual producers of solar power might soon be able to sell their "energy assets" through Green Mountain for thousands of dollars. To whom? Guilt-stricken (or publicity-savvy) corporations purchasing online credits to make themselves "carbon neutral."

Colleen Ahern-Hettich, who directs the Earth Ethics Institute at Miami Dade College, says that looking to FPL to solve our energy problems is an almost nonsensical proposition.

"It's just like the idea that growing food where you live makes more sense than transporting it thousands of miles," she said in a recent phone interview. "As opposed to going to FPL and saying how they can change things, we should be asking ourselves. Solar doesn't work on a grand scale, but on an individual scale it works beautifully."

She suggests Floridians begin adopting the mentality that there's "No away anymore," that when we throw things away or create byproducts like greenhouse gases, they simply remain among us.

"Should we be looking at decentralizing big power plants? Of course we should. Should we be focusing on conservation? Of course we should," she said. "There are complex, interconnected answers; we just have to start thinking outside this box we've already created."

Thanks to a state law passed last year, FPL can raise its rates as soon as a nuclear reactor is approved, rather than after it is already built. Given the financial benefits offered by this law change, a nuclear reactor seems inevitable -- even if Florida were suddenly to become the most energy-efficient state in the nation. If the reactor is funded by ratepayers who end up not consuming as much electricity as hoped, FPL can sell the excess power on the lucrative wholesale market.

One local man says that isn't so bad. His name is John Wade, and at first appearance he's as green as a pod of peas. He's a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. He has a solar water heater. He raises plants in his nursery in Homestead. He harvests mulberries from his land and makes cobbler with them. He also worked as a nuclear specialist at Turkey Point for 25 years, and advocates nuclear power as the best low-carbon emissions alternative to coal.

On a recent afternoon, Wade sat at his kitchen counter, explaining the workings of Turkey Point via a framed picture of the plant that normally hangs on a wall in his guest house. He gave a layman's explanation of the reactors, which are encased in four feet of concrete and steel and were designed to withstand a direct hit by a 1960s-era jet. He discussed the storage areas and the cooling canals, which were foisted on FPL after environmentalists sued the company for damaging the environment of Biscayne Bay with its runoff. His orange cat, Mr. Morris, sprawled out on the photo and meowed for attention.

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