Power plant project gets state go-ahead

TECO's Big Bend Power Station.

Over the objections of environmentalists pushing for alternative energy sources, Gov. Ron DeSantis and two Cabinet members on Thursday approved a Tampa Electric Co. power-plant project in Hillsborough County.

With little comment, DeSantis and the Cabinet, acting as the state’s Power Plant Siting Board, voted 3-1 to approve the project, which involves upgrading a generating unit at the utility’s Big Bend Power Station. The unit will burn natural gas.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried dissented and issued a statement after the meeting about fossil fuels, such as natural gas, contributing to climate change.

“No state in America --- and few places on Earth --- are as vulnerable to the effects of climate change as is Florida,” Fried said. 

Fried added that burning fossil fuels contributes to rising sea levels, more extreme weather, risks to public health and economic challenges.

“In a state at extreme risk from climate change, and with climate change exacerbated by burning fossil fuels, we haven’t done enough --- not nearly enough --- to curb the threat every single one of us faces,” she said.

DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis supported the findings of Administrative Law Judge Francine M. Ffolkes, who in May issued an 88-page recommended order that said the Tampa Electric plan should be approved.

Ffolkes said the project would reduce emissions when compared to the current operation of two 1970s-era generating units at the Big Bend site. Also, Ffolkes found that the change would reduce water withdrawals by up to 25 percent at the plant.

Larry Curtin, an attorney representing Tampa Electric, said the company has followed requirements of Hillsborough County and the Environmental Protection Agency in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We can’t be called to account to address all of the ills that the Sierra Club believes are happening as a result of climate change,” Curtin said. “There are literally hundreds of millions of sources of carbon dioxide.”

Diana Czank, representing the Sierra Club, argued that the plan simply replaces one fossil fuel, coal, with another, and could damage the surrounding community by failing to address climate change and the potential for regional flooding.

“All the science tells us switching to clean energy saves lives,” Czank said. “The market tells us that it also saves money. Voting for TECO’s dirty, dirty energy project would be irreversible error.”

Tampa Electric’s $853 million plan involves shutting down one generating unit, known as Unit 2, in 2021. Another unit, known as Unit 1, would be upgraded as a natural-gas plant, eliminating the possible use of coal in the unit. The upgraded plant would begin operating in 2023.

The 1970s-era units were originally built to burn coal, with natural gas later added as a secondary fuel.

In 2017, 67 percent of Tampa Electric’s power was generated with natural gas and 24 percent came from coal, according to the utility. That would shift to 75 percent generated by natural gas and 12 percent from coal in 2023.

In a statement issued after the vote, Tampa Electric President and Chief Executive Officer Nancy Tower pointed to environmental benefits of the project and efforts by the utility to increase solar-energy production.

“This project will improve the land, water and air emissions at Big Bend,” Tower said. “This project will save our customers money, and, coupled with our significant increase in solar power, will make Tampa Electric substantially cleaner and greener than it is today.”