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Trigaux: Sabal Trail gas pipeline faces bumpy start, but state lacks options for electricity

Late last December, demonstrators protested the Sabal Trail Pipeline in downtown St. Petersburg. The chief concern: the potential environmental consequences of the $3.2 billion, 515-mile pipeline for natural gas that would snake through Alabama, Georgia and Florida. At 268 miles, the Florida section is the longest, and involved drilling beneath the state's famous Suwannee River. The pipeline became operational in June of this year but a federal appeals court on Aug. 22 ruled federal regulators did not adequately consider its environmental impact.. Duke Energy Florida, which with other power companies co-owns the pipeline, is relying on it to deliver natural gas to its new power plant being built in northwest Citrus County. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Aug. 25, 2017

Now that Florida's the third most populated state in the country at 20 million people and counting, and hungry to absorb millions more in the coming years, here's a timely question:

How will Florida ever feed all those citizens?

I don't mean food. We're talking energy.

Per person, electricity use is not a booming business. But with new folks and retiring boomers pouring over the state border these days, Florida's electric utility industry will need to keep generating more kilowatts — just to keep up with the demand of the next wave of Floridians.

What kind of fuel power companies will use to generate more electricity in Florida is a big deal. Every source of fuel has its issues.

• Oil and coal, the old cornerstones, are big polluters and on their way out —no matter what President Trump may promise of a coal comeback.

• Nuclear power's flailing nationally and going backwards in Florida. Duke Energy opted to prematurely close down its broken Crystal River nuclear power plant north of Tampa Bay and it made a "never mind" decision after several years to stop building a planned new plant in Levy County.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Trigaux: Blind to runaway costs, nuclear power industry abandons another nuke plant

• Renewables like solar and wind are rising but combined generate less than 5 percent of the electricity in the state. At this point, consider them puny players in the "sunshine" state — no thanks to big power companies that have done their political best to suppress the independent solar industry here.

• Conservation of power, by encouraging lifestyles that rely on less electricity, could play a strong role in Florida by reducing the need to build new power plants so often. No surprise, state regulators do little to encourage residents or businesses to use power more efficiently — in part because big power companies are not rewarded for efficiency but make their money by selling as many kilowatts as possible.

That pretty much leaves natural gas, low priced for now and less polluting than coal. The downside is Florida's already grossly dependent on natural gas, which generates close to two thirds of the electricity in the state.

What happens if natural gas prices start to soar? Electric rates will escalate, too, with few options in the state to rely on less pricey alternatives.

Such is today's quandary. What can compete in size and economics with natural gas today?

Which brings us to the $3.2 billion Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, the third such conduit to bring gas into this state. Sabal includes about 515 miles of interstate natural gas pipeline, running through 86 miles of Alabama, 162 miles of Georgia and, most of all, 268 miles of Florida. It travels through 12 Florida counties, bringing fracked natural gas to serve local distribution companies, industrial users and — last but hardly least — natural gas-fired power plants.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Mass sit-in targets controversial Sabal Trail Pipeline at Suwannee River

A big beneficiary will be the $1.5 billion natural gas power plant that Duke Energy Florida is building in Crystal River in northwest Citrus County.

Duke is a partial owner of the Sabal Trail pipeline and will tap that supply of natural gas when the Duke facility starts generating electricity in 2018. A spur of the pipeline runs east to west across northern Citrus straight to the plant.

(FPL, the giant electric utility servicing South Florida and much of the state's east coast, will also tap gas from the Sabal pipeline.)

When first announced years ago, the Sabal Trail pipeline was vigorously opposed and protested by environmentalists.

As Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman has well documented in recent years, protesters have rallied against the pipeline in such diverse places as downtown St. Petersburg (where Duke Energy Florida has its headquarters) and along the historic Suwannee River in north Florida.

Driven by market prices and weak state planning, Florida now finds itself heavily dependent on natural gas as the principal fuel that will help keep the lights (and air conditioning) on in Florida. That's not a healthy situation, and it's certainly not unique to this state.

But it does help explain why the latest pipeline probably won't be the last pipeline to carry natural gas into a fast growing state.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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