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PSC bars coal-fired plant
Global warming worries figure in the vote to block construction near the Everglades.
By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published June 6, 2007
Global warming concerns helped persuade the state Public Service Commission on Tuesday to reject a plan by Florida's largest utility to build a $5.7-billion coal-fired power plant near Everglades National Park.
The denial marks the first time global warming has ever played a role in a PSC decision, and the first time in 15 years the state regulatory agency that oversees utilities has rejected a new power plant.
Gov. Charlie Crist had questioned the plant's location, the National Park Service had raised concerns about air pollution and environmental groups had argued it would increase greenhouse gases at a time when the nation is trying to combat global warming.
What persuaded the Public Service Commission to vote 4-0 against Florida Power & Light was the potential cost to the utility's customers -- including the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The PSC's denial delighted Crist, who called it "the right decision for the environment, the right decision for the Everglades and the right decision for Florida."
The vote stunned grass roots activists who "never expected to defeat it so easily, " said Rhonda Roff, who formed a group called Save It Now, Glades. "We were sort of trying to put out a fire with our tears."
FPL president Armando Olivera expressed "disappointment" with the PSC. Since Hurricane Katrina disrupted the oil and gas industry in 2005, the commission has been pushing utilities to find fuel sources other than natural gas. That's why FPL tried building a coal plant.
"We obviously misread the commission's intention for fuel diversity and are hopeful that going forward they will provide us with clear and unwavering direction as to what they want us to do, " Olivera said.
FPL could ask for a rehearing or appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Utility executives are still evaluating whether to take that step.
Environmental activists said the PSC's decision could affect more than just the 1, 960-megawatt Glades Power Park plant that FPL wanted to build near Moore Haven. An 800-megawatt plant in rural Taylor County is slated for PSC consideration later this year, and four more have been proposed elsewhere.
"I think the other coal plants are in for a tough fight, " predicted George Cavros of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Denials are rare for the PSC, which routinely gives utilities a green light on building new plants to keep up with Florida's booming population. It has approved seven in just the last three years. The last time the PSC denied a plant was in 1992.
The Glades plant has stirred controversy from the start. FPL originally proposed building it in St. Lucie County. But in 2005 county commissioners unanimously rejected the proposal because of concerns about pollution and global warming.
So, in February 2006, FPL officials began talking to Glades County officials. Last September, the utility announced it would build the plant on about 5, 000 acres of Glades farmland owned by Tampa-based Lykes Brothers. Environmental groups accused FPL of cutting a deal with Glades County officials to illegally rezone the Lykes land.
The location would have put the plant within 70 miles of Everglades National Park and 40 miles north of Big Cypress National Preserve, sparking strong concerns about air pollution from burning coal. Roff and other activists brought those concerns to the PSC during a five-day hearing in April. But during Tuesday's meeting, the commissioners focused more on dollars and cents.
Commissioner Matthew Carter made the motion to reject FPL's plant. Coal costs less than natural gas, but coal plants cost more to build than natural gas plants, he pointed out.
The PSC's rejection was also triggered in part by concerns a coal-fired plant would likely be subjected to new regulations limiting carbon emissions. Commissioners said they worried that electric rates could grow much higher for the coal plant if Congress begins taxing carbon emissions as a way to reverse climate change.
"This is a major milestone, both for Florida and the nation, in taking the first steps to deal with pollution that causes global warming, " said attorney David Guest of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that represented some of the groups opposing the plant.
FPL officials said they have not yet totaled how much the company has spent on planning the Glades plant. State records show FPL spent between $80, 000 and $190, 000 unsuccessfully lobbying for a law that would have allowed the company to pass on the cost of construction to its customers before it broke ground.
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
- Florida Power & Light can ask for a rehearing or appeal the PSC decision to the Florida Supreme Court.
- Another controversial coal- fired plant, proposed for Taylor County, is scheduled for a PSC vote later this year.
November 2005: The St. Lucie County Commission votes 5-0 to reject Florida Power & Light's coal-fired power plant.
February 2006: FPL executives open talks with Glades County officials.
September 2006: Glades officials announce FPL will build a plant on Lykes Brothers land 70 miles from Everglades National Park.
March: Environmental groups sue over land-use change.
April: The Public Service Commission holds a five-day hearing.