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Sun, wind energy potential high, but so is price

If money were no object, Florida could meet nearly all of its energy needs with sun and wind alone. Ocean currents would help light homes. Power plants would burn yard clippings and crop waste to provide power when the sun went down and the wind stopped blowing.

The bottom line, though, dictates a far less ambitious strategy.

The state could realistically expect utilities to generate 6 to 27 percent of retail electric sales from renewable energy by 2020, according to a recent report commissioned by the Public Service Commission. The first-of-its-kind report tallies Florida's renewable resources, and what it will cost to tap into them.

It cuts through the partisan bickering over renewable energy targets, failing to support the dire warnings of utility companies or the rosy predictions of environmentalists. The 268-page report from Navigant Consulting should help the commission this week as it tries to fix the scope and speed of Florida's push toward renewable energy.

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Perhaps the most eye-opening information in the report is just how much renewable energy is contained in Florida's ample sunshine and coastal breezes.

Today, Florida has just more than 1,500 megawatts of renewable energy capacity, according to the report. Solid biomass provides most of it, a category that consists largely of trash incinerators. From a purely technical standpoint, Navigant estimates that by 2020, Florida's renewable energy capacity could reach 174,000 megawatts — 116 times the state's renewable energy capacity today.

Navigant counted an enormous wind resource that lines Florida's coasts, where the waters are shallow enough for turbines, and the winds are strong and steady enough to produce electricity. Those breezes could produce 154.5 terawatt hours of wind electricity by 2020, nearly 63 percent of all the electricity produced in Florida last year. Solar energy could produce as much as 175.8 terawatt hours.

By 2020, the report said, solar and wind could produce more than 330 terawatt hours — more than all the power produced in Florida last year.

George Cavros, a renewable energy advocate who works with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said last week, "Really, the sky is the limit with technical analysis."

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Technical potential provides only a partial picture. It fails to account for cost.

When it comes to power, cost is a far more complicated equation than simply comparing the cost of building a power plant. Progress Energy's planned nuclear project in Levy County, for example, will cost about $14-billion plus the cost of transmission lines, the utility estimates. That comes out to more than $6,300 for every kilowatt of capacity. Florida Power & Light's three solar projects will cost less than $6,200 a kilowatt.

To the untrained eye, solar looks cheaper. Yet solar power plants operate only when it's sunny. Nuclear operates 24 hours a day.

For another comparison, Navigant factored in availability along with depreciation, fuel, operations, maintenance, and how much electricity a power plant will produce during its life. The result, known as levelized costs, approximates an apples-to-apples comparison between different types of power.

Further complicating the math, Navigant factored in the impact of climate change legislation like a carbon cap-and-trade system, renewable energy targets, as well as incentives like tax breaks for renewable power. A carbon cap-and-trade system would force fossil-fuel burning utilities to pay to emit carbon dioxide. This would tilt the scale in favor of carbon-free resources like wind and solar instead of high-carbon fuels like coal and oil.

In the scenarios Navigant created, fossil fuels often won out.

In one scenario, Navigant assumed that fuel prices reach the midpoint of utilities' projections, renewable targets would be in place, and the cost of carbon would hit $30 a ton. By 2020, the cost of power from a highly efficient natural gas plant would be less than half of that from ground-mounted solar panels. Even coal, with double the carbon emissions of natural gas, would be 40 percent cheaper.

It's only if fuel costs soar, renewable targets are high and carbon prices rise to $50 a ton that renewable energy starts to get cheaper than fossil fuels. At that point, offshore wind would cost 11.73 cents to 13.56 cents per kilowatt hour. Power from a highly efficient natural gas plant would cost 13.62 cents per kilowatt hour, and coal 15.02 cents. Solar hot water heating would be 46 percent cheaper than gas.

Out of the scenarios Navigant compared, it's the only one where power from solar panels is cheaper than coal.

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Amid the storm of details, it remains unclear whether Florida will set renewable energy targets before Congress and the federal government beat them to it. Still, the Navigant report provides a view of what's possible, and what it might cost. It's enough for the state to begin forging a policy of its own.

Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist signed an executive order calling for the state's utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The state Legislature punted the issue to the Public Service Commission earlier this year, asking the commission to set targets that will then come back to the legislature for approval in 2009.

So far, the commission's proposed targets have fallen far short of Crist's goals. One draft called for Florida to reach 20 percent renewable energy by 2050, 30 years later than Crist asked for. A toughened standard proposed in October would hit 10 percent in 2025, and 20 percent in 2041.

Utilities have called those targets reasonable, predicting sharply higher electric rates if an aggressive renewable target is set. Environmentalists lambasted the proposals, calling them "timid" and "weak." The commission will take up the issue again Wednesday.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

Sun, wind energy potential high, but so is price 11/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 6:01pm]

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