It slipped by as a mere footnote last week. But the decision by Tampa's Seminole Electric Cooperative to cancel plans to build a coal-fired power plant to generate electricity might represent the death knell of coal plants in Florida.
"The Florida Public Service Commission is extraordinarily unlikely to approve another coal plant in Florida," says David Guest, an attorney in Tallahassee with Earthjustice, which has fought against the use of coal and its heavy output of carbon dioxide to produce electricity. "The PSC realizes coal is not a good fuel for the future."
There are still 15 existing plants powered by coal in the state. But Seminole Electric's plant in Palatka was the last in a series of five coal-fired plant proposals — ranging from a whopper sought by Florida Power & Light to another by the Orlando Utilities Commission — in the state to be canceled.
There are many reasons:
UNCERTAINTY: Seminole Electric said it dropped its coal plans because regulatory changes afoot suggest a growing backlash against coal as too polluting, even with the latest smokestack technology. Seminole Electric generates the third-largest amount of electricity in Florida behind Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida.
IMPROVED PROSPECTS FOR NATURAL GAS: It's cleaner than coal, cheaper than oil and a 90-year supply is under our feet. But it wasn't always so alluring. Natural gas supplies and prices used to swing wildly, making a gas-fired plant extremely expensive at times to operate. However, new finds of natural gas combined with technology that more efficiently extracts the gas have changed experts' minds. Now they believe the huge inventory of natural gas will ease price swings and supply worries.
WEAKER DEMAND FOR ELECTRICITY: Forecasters once warned Florida needed more electricity generation to handle rising demand and a swelling population. Then the recession hit the state, and our population actually decreased as more residents migrated elsewhere. With electricity demand down, high-pollution coal plants look even less attractive.
RISING ROLE OF SOLAR POWER AND ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES: Solar power projects are popping up routinely around the state. They are neither big enough nor cost-efficient enough yet to replace coal, gas, oil or nuclear electricity plants, but the trend line is clear. Right behind solar are biomass plants, wind farms and other alternative ways to produce electricity. Conservation also helps reduce the demand for future electric plants.
Progress Energy Florida in St. Petersburg maintains that coal will remain an important part of its broad mix of fuels used to generate electricity. Now, 37 percent of the electricity generated by the utility comes from coal.
Still, Progress Energy Florida plans to shut down its two oldest coal plants — from the 1960s — in Citrus County when a proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County begins operating shortly before 2020.
In Tampa, TECO Energy-owned Tampa Electric still generates 55 percent of its electricity using coal (45 percent is natural gas). That still sounds like a lot but consider this: A few decades ago, 98 percent of the utility's electricity came from coal.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com.