FPL not about to blow chance to harness wind power

By Susan Salisbury
West Palm Beach, Florida (AP) November 2010

What U.S. company produces the most wind energy?

It’s Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy Resources, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, formerly known as FPL Group. The company has 76 wind farms in 17 states and Canada. Its roughly 9,000 wind turbines are capable of producing enough emissions-free energy to power about 1.9 million homes. Florida, where wind resources are considered minimal, has no wind farms, and Florida Power & Light Co., NextEra Energy’s utility subsidiary, wants to change that.

It’s pursuing testing for a possible project on citrus land in western St. Lucie County while keeping its option open for a Hutchinson Island wind farm.

In June 2007, two days after regulators rejected its proposal to build a coal plant, FPL announced its plans to build the first wind farm in Florida on Hutchinson Island, 8 miles south of Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County. The idea, in line with Gov. Charlie Crist’s push for greener energy, met resistance from nearby residents.

The company envisioned a $45 million project with six wind turbines as tall as 40-story buildings, at about 400 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty. The site was FPL land surrounding its nuclear plant.

“We didn’t want them to ruin our beaches in a place where there is no wind,” said Julie Zahniser, founder of the Save St. Lucie Alliance.

The coalition includes 500 members as well as the St. Lucie County Audubon Society, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Indian River Keeper, the Conservation Alliance and other groups.

FPL has yet to be granted a hearing before the St. Lucie County Commission, and the project is on hold, said Mark Satterlee, St. Lucie’s planning and development services director. But the idea of installing wind turbines in St. Lucie isn’t dead.

FPL has turned its attention elsewhere in St. Lucie County, said FPL’s director of project development, Buck Martinez.

Martinez agrees that Florida has limited wind but said FPL plans to begin testing in northwest St. Lucie soon. There might be a pocket of wind off Lake Okeechobee, he said.

St. Lucie County rancher Mike Adams said his land is being considered as a spot to conduct the tests. “We looked at some of our citrus land to do that. We would be interested in working with them,” Adams said of FPL.

Before the tests can begin, FPL is working with the county on changes in the land-use regulations to allow meteorological towers, said Ryan Fair, manager of FPL project development.

In 2008, FPL was awarded a $2.5 million state grant to help pay for the coastal project estimated to cost more than $45 million. It has spent $153,800 of that on wind studies and efforts to obtain permits. That grant can be used only for the Hutchinson Island project, Martinez said.

Hutchinson Island has sufficient winds to make a project economically viable, Martinez said.

“We have kept our options open,” Martinez said, pointing out that Florida does not have a renewable energy policy. “While we wait for legislation, we will study the interior opportunities in the county.”

Based on data from 2002 to 2006, the average annual wind speed at the Hutchinson Island site is 13.8 mph at 80 meters (87.48 yards), said WindLogics, another NextEra subsidiary. The report states the speed at 80 meters is extrapolated from measurements taken at 10 meters and 60 meters.

The company’s calculations include wind measurements taken every day, including during tropical storms and hurricanes.

If the wind speed at 80 meters is 1.85 times higher than at 10 meters, as the report indicates, hurricane-force winds could be a problem, said Juan Soto, a Sunrise engineer hired by the Save St. Lucie Alliance. That’s because there are no wind turbines manufactured to sustain gusts that would be as high as 211 mph.

“Just a gust from a Category 1 hurricane would enough to knock down the best wind turbines on the market,” Soto said.

Soto said environmental concerns include the effects on wetlands, birds, bats, fish and sea turtles.

“We should be trying to protect the environment, not destroying it in the process of getting clean energy,” Soto said. “It is more logical to pursue solar projects.”

FPL has two solar energy plants in the state, with a third scheduled to open in December in Martin County.

Meanwhile, the Save St. Lucie Alliance opposes a wind project anywhere in St. Lucie.

Zahniser, the group’s founder, said FPL is pursuing the project for the federal tax credits. “They make money whether there is wind or not,” Zahniser said. “The reward is not for the electricity they produce. The reward is for every one they build.”

FPL said the federal tax credit for wind projects applies only if the turbines are producing energy and that 100 percent of the benefit goes to customers.

NextEra Energy has long held the position that the wind isn’t strong enough in Florida.

“The wind resource, especially on land, is not as strong as it is in other places in the country,” said Kathy Belyeu, spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association. “Developers have been cherry-picking other places first.”

Recent reports zero in on offshore wind in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico as where the energy potential lies for Florida.

Like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, Florida is too low and too flat to produce enough wind energy, according to the Wind Energy Resource Atlas of the United States.

In June, the company received an 18-month extension on its Hutchinson Island project. It’s not pushing for a hearing and has agreed to put its application in abeyance, Martinez said.

“While we wait for legislation, we will study the interior opportunities in the county,” Martinez said. “There is not a lot of data for the state of Florida supporting wind. That is what we are trying to gather.”