The news last week that Florida Power & Light has abandoned a quest to site wind turbines on St. Lucie County public beach land must have come as a relief to some.
To the rest of us, it provided more questions than answers.
Why, for instance, would FPL now subject itself to even more environmental scrutiny on state-owned land? Wouldn’t that put back their timetable even more than using county-owned sites?
And why is FPL only looking at a grand total of nine windmills here?
Look at their other wind farm operations in Texas and California, where turbines number in the hundreds or thousands.
That’s because wind power isn’t intrinsically very efficient. Utilities need lots and lots of windmills to generate enough electricity to make them economically feasible.
If approved, the St. Lucie project would provide enough electricity to power only about 2,500 homes. We’re going to save the planet with that?
Then there’s Florida’s wind itself – is it strong or reliable enough? We were told a couple of years ago by FPL’s own experts that renewable energy sources simply wouldn’t cut it here. Of course, that was when the utility was after a coal-fired power plant here.
I spoke with Eric Silagy, FPL vice president for development, to get a few answers. The experience wasn’t entirely satisfactory.
FPL, Silagy said, was a little taken aback at objections to build on county land here. “We think of ourselves as a good neighbor. We live here, too, after all. We don’t want to be somewhere where people aren’t happy.”
And no, Silagy said, siting windmills on state land isn’t likely to slow up the permitting process. The company hopes to have “definitive feedback” from both state and county officials by spring.
Could there be another reason why FPL wants to do this project?
“Follow the money,” they teach new reporters, and you’ll often find the real reason why something’s happening. Are financial incentives in the shape of federal tax credits the reason why us and why now? The credits are due to expire at the end of ’08.
That’s not what’s driving this project, Silagy emphasized.
Yes, the tax credits (which pay utilities 1.9 cents for every kilowatt hour of electricity turbines generate over a 10-year period) are a strong incentive. They’ve even propped up the faltering wind power industry since the 1990s, Silagy agreed, but the St. Lucie project wouldn’t be complete before they lapse anyway.
FPL’s schedule is more about getting the actual turbines here, Silagy argued. The efficient Siemens 2.3 MW turbines FPL wants to use are in intense demand from Europe and China. The company doesn’t want to wait for them after gaining site approval here.
I still don’t get it. Our tiny project will never generate enough juice to make a dent in demand. Folks in St. Lucie aren’t happy at using public land for windmills. Yes, we might find out that Florida wind is strong enough, but the scale is all wrong even if that’s the case.
“There’s no silver bullet here,” Silagy agreed. This could be the first of several small-scale wind projects around Florida’s coastline, but wind will be only one of several power sources – including solar and nuclear – to satisfy future needs.
If that’s an answer, I guess I got one.
By Anthony Westbury
22 January 2008
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