JUNO BEACH – With the county commission poised to decide today whether to allow Florida’s first wind farm, an executive at the nation’s largest wind energy producer is questioning whether the project is viable.
Wind farms don’t make economic sense in Florida because the wind is too weak, and it’s cheaper to produce electricity from natural gas, nuclear power and coal, Mike O’Sullivan, senior vice president of development for NextEra Energy Resources, said Wednesday.
The Juno Beach-based company is North America’s largest producer of electricity using wind-powered turbines.
Today, the Palm Beach County Commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed 114-turbine, 200-megawatt Sugarland Wind project that St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group wants to build on 13,000 acres of farmland east of Belle Glade.
“If wind made sense in Florida, wouldn’t we be proposing wind here ourselves?” O’Sullivan said. NextEra has roughly
$13 billion in wind energy investments.
NextEra Energy Resources, like Florida Power & Light Co., is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy. It has 90 wind farms in 17 states and Canada, capable of producing nearly 8,750 megawatts – enough to power nearly 2.2 million average homes.
“We can deliver electricity in a windy spot in the center of the country for 3 cents a kilowatt hour,” O’Sullivan said. “In Florida, we think that is anywhere from 8 to 12 cents, depending on the wind regiment and the cost of construction.”
Although the site’s wind statistics are confidential, “wind resources here are on par with those in several other states that have wind farms, such as Arizona,” said Robin Saiz, Wind Capital’s project director. “We are seeing some lake effect there and some sea breezes.”
If approved by the county commission and state and federal officials, Sugarland would be Florida’s first wind farm.
Some observers see the $350 million project as a plus for western Palm Beach County because of jobs and economic impact.
Others, such as the Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida, say a wind farm should not be built at the site because it’s a major migratory route and the turbines would kill at least several hundred birds a year.
“The facility creates an unacceptably high risk to birds,” said Robert Johns, spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy.
In 2010, NextEra reached a $2.5 million settlement with the state of California and environmental groups over as many as 4,700 turbine-related bird deaths a year in the Altamont Pass area. NextEra, which is not the only wind producer in Altamont Pass, agreed to replace 2,400 decades-old turbines there with new turbines that are less harmful to birds.
Industry experts place the cost of the typical turbine at about $2 million.
NextEra did not develop its Altamont Pass wind farms but purchased them in the 1990s, O’Sullivan said. It now produces about half of the Altamont’s 580 megawatts.
When the wind farms were built in the 1970s and early ’80s, bird studies were not part of the process.
Paul Gray, science coordinator at Audubon of Florida, emphasized the risks of turbines.
“Florida never has tried them. We have endangered birds like Everglade snail kites that occur nowhere else in the U.S., so we think ample caution should be exercised,” Gray said.
He said the project should include three years of bird surveys and a phased installation.
“Put a few in to measure impacts, rather than plopping 100-plus out right away and hoping nothing bad results,” Gray said.
Although in 2008 FPL proposed building a wind farm on Hutchinson Island, citing studies that showed wind would be sufficient, O’Sullivan said Wednesday that wind farms are not cost-effective in Florida.
“There are smart places to put wind turbines and less-smart places to put wind turbines,” O’Sullivan said. “Florida is a less-smart place due to the lack of wind resources. As windy as we locals think it is here, it is not.”
O’Sullivan also said that if Sugarland Wind isn’t completed by December, it won’t qualify for federal wind tax credits set to expire this year.
Saiz said the company does not expect the project to be done this year but hopes the tax credits are extended. If they aren’t, he said, the project will move forward anyway.
Wind energy is the state’s least-costly renewable option, Saiz said.
“We are two and a half times cheaper than solar,” Saiz said.
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