HUTCHINSON ISLAND – Jutting 400 feet into the sky, the 2.3-megawatt turbines proposed for Florida’s first industrial wind farm would be more than twice the height of the tallest condo on this narrow barrier island.
The whirling blades would have a reach wider than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. The gears would be housed atop a 262-foot tower, in a box bigger than a bus. And the whole 300-ton assembly would rest near the dunes on a two-story concrete pad exposed to a surging sea and possible hurricanes.
Florida Power & Light, the nation’s largest provider of wind energy, says placing nine of these behemoths across from its St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant – three on beachfront state conservation land and six on property the company owns – would power 3,000 homes.
The company says the sight of the giant turbines would stimulate demand for similar wind farms across the state by residents eager to do their parts to halt global warming.
But the $61 million project, recently awarded a $2.5 million state grant, so far is generating more heat than light, and prospects for its survival appear dim.
Since FPL proposed the wind farm last summer, fierce grass-roots opposition has arisen.
“The more I learn, the more I question whether wind energy makes sense anywhere in Florida,” said St. Lucie County Commissioner Doug Coward. “I’m sure other local governments will go through the same learning curve.”
When making an unsuccessful effort to build a coal-fired power plant in St. Lucie in 2005, FPL officials said Florida wasn’t windy enough for wind power. Last year, FPL told the state Public Service Commission it favored solar over wind projects. It said even Florida’s offshore coastal winds are below the 17 mph needed to efficiently generate power, especially in summer when electricity use peaks.
Today, the state’s largest investor-owned utility is declining to comment on the project.
“Stay tuned is all I can say,” said FPL spokeswoman Amy Brunjes.
In its application for the $2.5 million state grant, FPL lists its objectives: support Gov. Charlie Crist’s call to reduce greenhouse gases, explore and foster public awareness of Florida’s wind-energy potential and serve as a model for its development across the state.
So far, though, the public awareness FPL has fostered is largely negative, in part because of its preferred site. FPL is seeking variances to place three turbines just north of its nuclear plant at Blind Pass, a 400-acre river-to-ocean parcel purchased by the state and county for conservation. That has dismayed some of the nation’s leading environmental groups.
Joined by Coward, who as the county’s environmental planner sold the bond issue for the property to voters, they say allowing a private utility to build on public conservation land would set an “ugly precedent,” opening the door to similar projects in state parks, preserves and refuges.
Last week, the third of five county commissioners said she would not support windmills at Blind Pass, leaving FPL to find another site or decide whether to proceed with just the six turbines it has proposed on Walton Rocks, a popular surfing spot that FPL owns.
But even turbines on FPL property may be a hard sell, thanks to the Internet-powered learning curve Coward said he and other St. Lucie residents such as Julie Zahniser and Adam Locke have embarked on.
Windsurfers, sailors and the parents of 4-year-old twins, the couple remember being receptive when they first read about the project. If reducing greenhouse gases meant marring the view from their waterfront house on Indian River Drive, a 14-mile stretch of stately homes facing the nuclear plant across the waterway, so be it.
FPL says on its Web site that wind turbines are “virtually undetectable from a distance. You would have little difficulty conversing right beneath one.”
But late last year, Zahniser, 39, an attorney, typed “living with wind turbines” into a Google search.
There were hundreds of essays, videos, documentaries and Web sites criticizing wind power. Around the world, people who live near turbines warned of diminished property values, inefficient power generation, empty economic promises and a disorienting “shadow flicker” from sunbeams reflecting off the whirling blades.
They also complained of incessant noise, describing it as a distant plane that never lands or bricks wrapped in a towel spinning in a clothes dryer.
Zahniser posted her findings on the Indian River Drive neighborhood’s Yahoo group and continued her research, turning up what she described as “the biggest revelation of all” – doubts that Florida is a viable locale for wind power.
She and her husband then founded the Save St. Lucie Alliance to stop the project. “We would be sacrificing for nothing,” she said.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which classifies the nation’s wind-energy potential on a scale of 1 to 7, ranks all of Florida’s coast at 2, or marginal, with average winds of about 13 mph at 164 feet. Utility-grade turbines need Class 4 winds of about 16 mph to make them economically feasible, according to spokesman George Douglas.
But FPL, calling Hutchinson Island one of the windiest places in Florida, recently told environmental opponents that a meteorological tower at the nuclear plant has measured average winds near 17 mph. If so, Douglas said, that would be sufficient.
“Wind farmers build wind farms to make money, and my guess is FPL, a huge wind farmer, is a good judge of whether they can make money on Hutchinson Island,” Douglas said.
FPL generates about 35 percent of the nation’s wind energy with more than 50 facilities in 16 states. But Zahniser and other critics are convinced that the company is pursuing a marginal project for the tax write-offs available for alternative energy.
FPL has been working hard to mend fences with Crist, after supporting his opponent in last year’s Republican primary. The company gave more than $1 million to the governor’s campaign to pass the Amendment 1 property-tax reforms and has pledged to build a large solar plant in Florida.
Calling the wind proposal a “feel-good project” designed to oblige Crist, Eric Draper, policy director of Audubon of Florida, said the awareness it has generated will doom wind energy anywhere in Florida.
“The wind is on the coast, where you only have environmentally sensitive land, and people who want to live by it or use it for recreation,” Draper said. “They are not going to want to see these facilities on their beaches.”
By Maya Bell
17 March 2008
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