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Duke Energy plans to help on L.A. wind farm project — but what about Florida?

This wind farm sits on a bluff above Wallula in southern Washington state near the Columbia River. Could a wind project be in Florida's future? [Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/MCT]
This wind farm sits on a bluff above Wallula in southern Washington state near the Columbia River. Could a wind project be in Florida's future? [Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/MCT]
Published Sept. 24, 2014

Duke Energy announced plans Tuesday for the nation's largest wind farm and energy storage system in the western United States, prompting questions about whether the utility should offer major clean energy projects in Florida and the East Coast.

Duke-American Transmission, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, would join three other companies to create the $8 billion project that would produce twice as much electricity as the Hoover Dam. The system would power 1.2 million homes in the Los Angeles area by 2023 if federal, state and local regulators approve the project.

The project's plans call for the construction of the wind farm in Wyoming and for a storage facility in Utah. A 525-mile electric transmission line network would connect the two systems.

"This project would be the 21st century 's Hoover Dam — a landmark of the clean energy revolution," said Jeff Meyer, managing partner of Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy, one of the companies involved in the initiative.

Clean-energy advocates praised the project while challenging Duke to find ways to develop major clean energy initiatives in the Sunshine State and throughout the southeastern United States where the utility is based.

"Southern Alliance for Clean Energy applauds Duke-American Transmission and the other partners for their involvement in this innovative project to provide clean energy to Los Angeles," said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance. "We need the same kind of forward thinking in Florida."

Added Jim Warren, executive director of North Carolina-based environmental group NC WARN: "Some parts of the Duke Energy company are doing some wonderful, progressive things. What about us? What about your monopoly prisoners in these southeastern states?"

The Southern Alliance and NC WARN have led calls in Florida and the Carolinas for Duke to do more with renewable energy — solar in particular.

As rooftop solar continues to gain traction in California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Georgia and other states, Florida has lacked political support in Tallahassee to bolster use of the technology.

Duke, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light — the state's three largest investor-owned utilities — maintain monopoly control over most of the electricity generated in the state. Their business model benefits from construction of power plants they control.

Without a storage system like what Duke and its partners plan for caverns in Utah, the investor-owned utilities have difficulty making solar or wind energy economical on a large scale. That's because solar and wind do not consistently produce power 24 hours a day, as coal, natural gas and nuclear do.

Still, one Georgia utility regulator, Bubba McDonald, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, pushed for solar there and a year ago challenged Florida to do the same, despite the technical obstacles.

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So far, the state has not picked up that challenge.

Duke has been looking for 22 acres in Pinellas County for a solar farm, but that project would provide power to one small community, not the 1.2 million homeowners that the project designed for Los Angeles would.

Duke also recently announced a $500 million expansion of its solar efforts in North Carolina.

"I think Duke's announcement . . . about solar in North Carolina was pretty big renewable news on the East Coast," said Randy Wheeless, a Duke spokesman. "In fairness, state energy policy drives many business decisions around renewables — and those policies vary by state."

In a conference call Tuesday about the new wind project, Duke and its partners said the resources for wind and storage made this particular project feasible, coupled with demands in California for more clean energy.

"The evolution of this is . . . a response to the market," Chris Jones, managing director of business development for Duke-American Transmission, said. "Storage and large storage projects can play a key role in integration of renewables."

Jim Heid, a senior vice president of Dresser-Rand, another partner in the wind project, put it this way: "It was kind of an alignment of the planets."

Contact Ivan Penn at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.