Rayburn Butts wanted to tell everyone at the Climate Change Conference about what his company was doing to combat global warming.
Butts talked about how Florida Power & Light is building the state's biggest solar power plant in Sarasota. He touted the Miami-based utility's huge investment in wind power. He described its efforts to encourage energy conservation.
When the time came for questions, though, the first one concerned a topic that Butts acknowledged as awkward: Why would a company trying to fight global warming propose building the biggest coal plant in the eastern United States right at the edge of the Everglades?
"I don't believe in the U.S. or in Florida we can move forward without coal," Butts told the Tampa conference last month, "although coal is a larger emitter of carbon gases than other fuels."
This is the year that Florida's business and political leaders have all lined up to declare their concern about curbing carbon emissions that lead to global warming. Gov. Charlie Crist calls climate change "one of the most important issues" facing the state.
Yet at the same time, Florida's utilities have proposed building six new coal-burning power plants to serve Florida's growing population, in places ranging from rural Taylor County in the Big Bend area to a spot near Lake Okeechobee.
Today the Public Service Commission will vote on whether to approve the most controversial of the proposed coal plants: a pair of 980-megawatt facilities that FPL wants to build in Glades County. The $5.7-billion Glades Power Park, to be built 70 miles from Everglades National Park, is intended to provide power for 650,000 homes.
Florida's six plants are among 150 coal-fired plants proposed nationwide, even as the growing scientific consensus on global warming has focused attention on cutting emissions. Power plant emissions account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.
At this point, "carbon dioxide has not been identified under Florida law as a pollutant," state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole said, so the DEP cannot require the utilities to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.
'On the brink of a blackout'
The Glades plant, which has yet to receive its DEP permit, has drawn sharp questions from the National Park Service and environmental activists. Even Crist "does have reservations regarding the proposed Glades Power Park Plant, especially with respect to its location and emissions," spokesman Thomas Philpott said.
But the PSC staff has recommended the commission give the project its seal of approval as "the most cost-effective alternative to meet the reliability and fuel diversity needs of FPL."
While noting that her agency "is closely monitoring climate change developments," PSC Chairwoman Lisa Polak Edgar said the commission is also concerned about hurricane season.
In recent years the state's utilities have been switching plants to natural gas, a fuel that burns cleaner than coal or oil. In 2000, for instance, TECO Energy's Tampa Electric unit agreed to the switch so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would settle a Clean Air Act lawsuit.
Last year Florida power plants drew nearly one-third of their fuel from natural gas. But when Florida was hit by a series of hurricanes in 2004, and then Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf of Mexico's field of offshore rigs in 2005, it curtailed the supply.
"We basically were on the brink of a blackout," Barbara Linkowicz, FPL's director of environmental licensing said.
Those two hurricane seasons "acutely demonstrated Florida's dependence on natural gas and the state's susceptibility to supply interruptions," Edgar of the PSC said in an e-mail to the Times.
As a result, she said, last year the Legislature told the PSC to require the state's utilities to diversify their fuel supply. That means turning back toward coal, which is not affected by hurricanes in the gulf.
Besides, coal is cheaper than natural gas.
"Let's face it, people want their energy at the lowest possible price," FPL CEO Lewis Hay III told stockholders last month. "Our nation has an abundance of coal, so it's going to continue to be used going forward."
Regulations could drive up cost
But the apparent low price may be deceptive.
Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy pointed out that FPL recently joined a group called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which is pushing for a mandatory reduction in carbon emissions of 60 to 80 percent by 2050.
Regulations requiring coal-fired plants to capture their 60 to 80 percent of their carbon is going to drive up the cost to the point where natural gas is cheaper, she said.
Glickman and Sole, the DEP secretary, both touted a process called "coal gasification" - which uses coal to create a clean-burning gas - as the only one that could easily be retrofitted to capture carbon emissions. TECO already operates a coal gasification plant in Polk County, and now wants to add a second one on its site 40 miles from Tampa.
TECO president Chuck Black said using coal gasification costs up to 15 percent more to build, "which is a lot when you're talking about a $1-billion plant." But retrofitting it later for carbon capture will likely cost half as much as it will at other kinds of coal-powered plants, he said. Plus it uses far less water and produces far less air pollution.
Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Energy production: Around the Tampa Bay region
COAL - Tampa Electric's Big Bend Station, Apollo Beach
NUCLEAR - Progress Energy's nuclear plant, Crystal River
NATURAL GAS - Tampa Electric's Bayside power station, Hillsborough County
OIL - Progress Energy's Weedon Island plant, Pinellas County