ST. PETERSBURG — A crowd of more than 100 delivered petitions with 5,500 signatures to Duke Energy on Wednesday, calling on the utility to use solar and other clean energies in place of coal.
With placards reading "Florida Needs Clean Energy" and chants of "Hey hey, ho ho, dirty coal has got to go," the crowd called on the nation's largest utility to help bolster solar in the Sunshine State.
"Five thousand of our friends and neighbors want Duke to move beyond coal and bring real clean air to Florida, energy efficiency and solar," said Julia Hathaway, an organizer with the Sierra Club of Florida.
DeeVon Quirolo, a marine conservationist and a Hernando County activist who collected 1,000 signatures, said she wants a "clean energy future and good jobs. We have a right to clean air."
Wednesday's rally in Williams Park across the street from Duke's Florida headquarters building is part of a growing effort to push the Sunshine State to adopt more solar power. Florida trails several Southeastern states, including Georgia and North Carolina, in the use of solar energy.
On March 20, students at the University of Florida delivered petitions with 1,000 student signatures calling on the campus president to require Duke to use 100 percent renewable energy in any future contract with the campus. The current contract ends at the close of this year.
Curtis A. Reynolds, UF vice president for business affairs who is handling the electricity contract, did not respond to messages left with his staff about whether getting to 100 percent is even possible.
Nicole LeBeau, a Duke spokeswoman, said it would not be "prudent" for the company to comment on the student petition, since it was delivered to the university and not the utility.
On the petitions delivered to Duke on Wednesday, LeBeau said the utility already reduced air emissions from its power plants by more than 82 percent over the last 15 years and will continue those efforts.
"We are committed to meeting our customers' energy needs 24/7 in an increasingly clean, reliable and affordable manner," LeBeau said. "Doing this requires a mix of energy resources, including natural gas, cleaner-burning coal, renewables and energy efficiency."
Supporters of both petition drives plan to press state lawmakers on the issue during a rally, dubbed the "Solar Uprising" April 10 in Tallahassee, an effort backed by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Calls for increased use of solar power, which often comes with a hefty federal subsidy, have prompted tense debate in Tallahassee during the current session.
On Tuesday, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Finance and Tax Committee, blocked a bill that would give tax breaks to businesses that install solar panels. A Senate committee passed the legislation.
"I just don't see the need to continue to expand the incentives and underwriting of solar," Workman said Tuesday. "Solar is coming a long way and eventually it's going to be able to stand on its own two feet. But right now it doesn't."
Workman told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that he supports solar, but he was concerned about clogging up the ballot with a solar initiative that required a constitutional amendment.
Even so, Workman's comments drew sharp criticism from solar proponents.
Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, called Workman's comments "ludicrous" and the kind of statements made by the investor-owned utilities, which have monopoly control on electricity in Florida.
"The (investor-owned utilities) have done a fairly good job of steering us away from renewable energy," Dudley said. "The remark that solar is not viable, it's false."
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.