Florida Cabinet approves Tampa Electric partial plant conversion from coal to natural gas

Some environmental groups and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor had opposed the plan, saying the Big Bend Power Station will still rely on climate warming fossil fuel.
Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Plant. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Plant. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published July 25, 2019|Updated July 25, 2019

Tampa Electric Co. can move forward with its plan to convert part of its Big Bend Power Station to natural gas.

In a Thursday morning meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the rest of the Florida Cabinet voted to approve the plan over the objections of some environmentalists. The cabinet, meeting as Florida's Power Plant Siting Board, has final say over such projects.

DeSantis, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody voted in favor of the plan, while Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat on the cabinet, voted against it.

"We're pleased with the decision, and we expect to begin construction in August," Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for Tampa Electric, said Thursday.

The utility plans to convert a coal-fired generator at Big Bend (Unit 1) to natural gas, while another coal-fired generator (Unit 2) will be retired. The new natural gas generator will be able to produce 1,090 megawatts, about 294 megawatts more than the two coal-powered generators currently produce together. Both units will be complete by 2023.

Tampa Electric expects to spend $853 million on the project, which its ratepayers will cover.

The retiring generator was the site of an accident in 2017 in which five workers died while performing a maintenance procedure the utility knew to be dangerous, a Tampa Bay Times investigation showed. Tampa Electric was fined $126,749 by federal regulators, which the utility is still appealing.

Big Bend Power Station will continue to use coal in its two other generators.

The conversion of the other generator drew sharp criticism and pushback from environmental groups, particularly the Sierra Club, which sought to prevent the power company from pursuing the project. In advance of the vote Thursday, the Sierra Club collected 9,430 signatures on a petition against the plant's conversion and facilitated 878 calls to the governor as part of its #TellTheTruthTeco campaign.

Tampa Electric argues that switching from coal to natural gas will reduce the plant's emissions by half compared to the coal-powered generators. But environmental advocates argue that swapping one fossil fuel for another will still significantly contribute to climate change.

"As long as (Tampa Electric) is burning fossil fuels and endangering our climate," said Susannah Randolph, senior campaign representative for Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" program in the state, "we're continuing to push for clean energy in Tampa."

At Thursday’s meeting, Larry Curtin, a Holland & Knight lawyer representing Tampa Electric, said the Sierra Club's expectations of the utility aren't fair.

"We can't be called to account to address all of the ills that the Sierra Club believes are happening because of climate change," Curtin said. "What we're doing is substantially reducing the carbon dioxide that's going to be coming from the facility."

Greenhouse gas emissions at the plant aren’t the only concern raised by environmentalists. Experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute say the methane released during the extraction process and any leaks while transporting the gas make the overall environmental impact comparable to coal.

Last week, Rep. Kathy Castor, who chairs the U.S. House’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, requested that DeSantis take a close look at Tampa Electric’s plan, arguing that the proposal “would contribute to the climate crisis by emitting tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases that cause billions of dollars in damages.”

Hillsborough County commissioners Pat Kemp, Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman also sent letters to the governor and cabinet asking them to reject the proposal. Kemp considers the issue far from over, and intends to bring it up for discussion and a potential resolution at the County Commission.

“It’s the wrong thing for (Tampa Electric) to do and I think this is just the start of what will be widespread opposition in this area,” she said Thursday.