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.

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.

The Putneys were en route to the Bahamas in the late Eighties when the boat needed a repair. They put in at Key Largo and decided to stay. They wanted to live out their golden years in quiet, surrounded by nature. After two years on Key Largo, though, they started feeling hemmed in by weekend homes. "We began looking for the place that seemed like it would resist development the longest," said Mick.

So, like the key deer, the manatee, and other endangered species, the Putneys retreated to the habitat that would best support the dwindling numbers of their population, a landscape where aged hippies could thrive without the threat of encroaching development. They found protected status on No Name, and not simply because it was a wildlife refuge. The real reason the island seemed safe was because it is off the grid: No power lines. No water mains.

Being the handy, spry 78-year-old he is, Putney set about designing his house. With the help of a few concrete-pourers and electricians, he built it from the ground up. He kept the climate in mind: Fans, cross-breezes, and a draft-providing cupola would make life without air conditioning tolerable.

He learned lessons and made mistakes. As he set about commissioning a manhole cover for his 16,500-gallon rainwater cistern, the men at the foundry laughed at him. Cisterns, they told him, are commonplace in the Caribbean, and they sell hatch doors for them. Putney came to realize that although his project might be considered obscure in Florida, in places with scarcer resources it would have been deemed normal.

He installed a reverse osmosis pumping system to make the water drinkable. A passive solar water heater would make it hot. Finally, for electricity, current generated by solar panels on the roof would be stored in a bank of batteries, which would power the house's TV set, computer, fax machine, lights, toaster oven, washer and dryer, and pretty much anything else a normal house might have. Putney completed his home in 1992.

On a recent afternoon, Alicia Putney was holed up in her office in front of her iMac, absorbed in one of various environmental causes the Putneys support. They're used to visitors stopping by to see the house. She walked outside to stretch and take a break. A casually dressed 56-year-old with graying hair, Alicia says she didn't feel old until she reached the age her husband was when they married. He was 44 and she was 22. They've been together 34 years and plan to live out the rest in the house they built.

The environmental model on No Name Key was not particularly motivated by do-gooders, but somewhere along the way the island became an epicenter for renewable energy in South Florida. The local sales representative for Kyocera photovoltaic panels lives here. Dan Morris, who grew up spending summers at his family's vacation home on the island, is now an electric engineer and one of the most prolific installers of solar electric systems in Palm Beach County. Tours of curious copycats drive through to knock on doors and learn how it's done. The residents of No Name Key, once considered the local loons, are now eco-revolutionaries. "We've gone from people seeing us as a bunch of nuts to being heroic pioneers," Mick Putney said with evident glee.

Wearing a worn T-shirt, cut-off jean shorts, flip-flops, and his white hair pulled back into a ponytail, Putney stared up at his self-sustaining house with satisfaction on a scorching sunny afternoon in May. He squinted at the solar panels on his roof. "They operate at about 25 percent efficiency," he said. He turned and pointed to the gumbo limbo tree next to him. "The leaves on that are 98 percent efficient."

"Chlorophyll," he muttered. "Respect nature."


Roger Messenger is a retired Florida Atlantic University professor of electrical engineering who now installs solar panels full-time for a living. He works out of Boca Raton and is so tired of driving to South Miami every time a homeowner wants to install a photovoltaic panel that he has dedicated himself to training his competition, teaching eight-hour seminars on Saturdays at Miami Dade College.

"Looking at all the new construction going on, there's plenty of business for everyone, and no reason for us not to help other people," he said. And there does appear to be a need; the Florida Solar Energy Center lists in its directory only one Miami-Dade-based contractor who is licensed to install solar panels. Messenger's office, just for fun, estimated how long it would take them to install photovoltaic systems on every house in South Florida. At a rate of two houses a day, the answer they deduced was twenty years.

A recent drizzly morning found the gray-haired, mild-mannered Messenger before a class of fourteen architects, electricians, and curious homeowners, all of them men, sitting on red chairs dotted with old chewing gum, notebooks open.

He clicked through the introduction of his PowerPoint presentation on installation. Messenger is a techie by nature, but he has learned to restrain himself. Arriving at a slide displaying a complicated diagram of wavy lines in various colors, he said, "Okay, this is how a photovoltaic cell works," looking briefly at the slide and pausing. "You shine a light on it and it makes electricity."

He clicked ahead. "They told me I spent too much time on that slide last time."

In the hallway during a break, a German named Mike ate a pastry from the vending machine. He didn't want to give his last name or address, because he has solar panels and a windmill going with no permit.

"I just take down the panels before a hurricane," he said with a shrug. "FPL can't figure out why my electric bill is so much less than my neighbors'."

Germany, he pointed out, is the third-largest producer of solar power in the world. "This country is twenty years behind," he said, grumbling about a state government he says is controlled by corporate interests. "It's this yuppie culture. People don't care as long as the power comes out of the outlet."

He might have a point. Although recently enacted state rebates and federal tax credits can cut the cost of a $20,000 solar system in half, only 83 Floridians have sought out the rebate since July 2006. Given the advantages of a few solar panels and a solar water heater in times like the aftermath of a hurricane, the number seems surprisingly low.

But most solar gurus in Florida tend to be like Mike the German and the Putneys of No Name Key -- technophiles who build most of their systems themselves. For the less handy, like Mike's yuppies, such expertise is hard to come by. When American Airlines pilot John Hammerstrom and his FIU professor wife, Diane Marshall, began building their three-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-story Key Largo "hybrid house" (currently on the market for $3.5 million, it gets 40 percent of its electricity from solar panels and was constructed from eco-friendly materials), they confronted an unusual challenge: the need to teach their tradesmen. The market for green homes is still small, and many contractors have not invested in the training required to install renewable energy technology -- even though in some cases it can be done in a day.

"We found ourselves constantly trying to talk people into doing things," remembered Hammerstrom. "With the plumber it was the solar water heater; with the electrician it was the solar panels; with the guy that does the floors it was the bamboo flooring." Some things, like getting insulating integrated concrete forms to keep the house cool, they had to give up on for lack of a trained installer.

After they finished building their house, Marshall spearheaded a local initiative to educate professionals and homeowners in the basics of outfitting a green home. The result was the Florida Keys Green Living and Energy Expo, an annual event that began in 2005. This year dozens of workshops featured topics like "Lighting for Less" and "Reduce Your Energy Bill." All-day workshops for tradesmen included "Photovoltaics for Building Pros," taught by Messenger, who says he is busier installing solar systems in retirement than he ever was teaching.

Some also see a lack of support for green building from utility companies like FPL. By law, residents in FPL's service area can connect to its grid and sell their excess solar power back to the company. But while the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative pays retail for power its users send back to the grid, FPL pays only wholesale.

"Florida Keys Electric Cooperative is owned by its ratepayers," said Hammerstrom. "FPL really has not encouraged people; it's investor-owned, so it has much more responsibility to produce profits. If you earn your revenue from utility rates, by the nature of the structure you're not going to be as motivated to conserve."

And although individual users say the sun is constant enough that they get a fair amount of electricity even when the sun is not out, FPL consistently contends that the state has too many cloudy days for solar power to make sense here. "Usually by the third or fourth cloudy day I start saying to Alicia: Let's not run the washing machine,'" said Mick Putney. Until then, they're fine.


It's true that FPL isn't likely to push customers to cut back on the commodity it sells. In its last quarterly earnings report, in which the utility touted the addition of 98,000 new customers and a four-million-dollar rise in profits, FPL CEO Lew Hay also lamented that "usage growth, adjusted for weather, remained weak." While weak usage growth -- or even better, decline -- would be an environmental gain, in the zero-sum world of publicly held corporations, shareholders lose.

But it's always easier to blame a behemoth corporate entity like FPL for burning fossil fuels and producing nuclear waste, instead of ourselves, the consumers. As far as electric companies go, it might surprise some Floridians that FPL is one of the cleanest. Only five percent of the electricity it generates is derived from coal, compared to 52 percent nationwide. FPL's sister company, FPL Group, is the single largest producer of wind energy in the country, though none of that electricity reaches Floridians.

According to Messenger, part of the reason solar power is supported by power companies in states like Colorado is because those companies need to compensate for the amount of toxins their plants are spewing into the air. FPL does not need to make such concessions, given its relatively clean energy portfolio.

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.

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.

"In the history of nuclear power in the United States, including Three Mile Island, nobody has been killed due to radiation," said Wade. "It's clean, safe technology."

He said that although radioactive waste might be a frightening prospect, it comes in relatively small quantities that can be safely contained and stored. Coal, he added, releases less concentrated toxins than nuclear waste but produces massive waste in the form of emissions, ash, and byproducts of mining that have taken thousands of lives and caused global warming.

Wade's support of nuclear power has made him something of a pariah at the local Sierra Club chapter. Mark Oncovage, a retired music teacher who has devoted more than two decades to protesting nuclear power in Miami, said Wade presents an overly hygienic view. Oncovage pointed out that although nuclear power might not further global warming as quickly as coal, global warming might harm nuclear power. He cited the heat wave that hit Europe in the summer of 2003. France, which relies almost completely on nuclear power, had to shut down or reduce capacity because the lakes and rivers used to cool reactors became too hot to do the job.

Nuclear power's highly concentrated fuel sources also present unique opportunities for terrorists. In 2006 a small hole was found drilled in a pipe in the containment area of a nuclear unit at Turkey Point. The reactor was offline at the time, and the hole was discovered during routine security checks prior to starting the plant up again, but it represented a clear breach in security. A $100,000 reward offered by the FBI has yet to turn up any suspects.

In the words of former state Public Service Commissioner Leon Jacobs, nuclear power is "the epitome of the hot potato." There's the waste: In the absence of a federal dumping site, spent fuel rods have been stored on-site in pools that are now reaching capacity. There's the cost: The average nuclear reactor requires $2.6 billion to build. Added to the initial cost is more money set aside for decommissioning the structure and disposing of its toxic waste.

Then there's the question of how well the county is prepared to deal with a meltdown. A spokesperson for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, which is responsible for distributing potassium iodide in the event of such a disaster, says the county has 305,968 adult doses and 80,000 child doses on hand, enough for one dose for every person within a ten-mile radius.

However, a dose of potassium iodide protects for only one day. Even if the city were able to evacuate residents within 24 hours, unchecked radiation can spread up to 200 miles from the accident.

For Wade the answer to that problem is simple: There isn't going to be an accident. He sees the nuclear naysayers -- like the utopian notion of an electricity-producing victory garden on every rooftop -- as impractical, with their heads muddled in carbon-free clouds.

"Have you seen the number of high-rises in downtown Miami?" he asked while petting Mr. Morris. "Those need electricity."

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