1. Opinion

It's not solar, but it beats coal. State should back TECO natural gas plant. | Editorial

LUIS SANTANA | TIMES Tampa Electric Company's Big Bend Bend power plant in February. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
LUIS SANTANA | TIMES Tampa Electric Company's Big Bend Bend power plant in February. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Jul. 23, 2019

Despite whining from some environmentalists, the governor and Cabinet should approve a plan Thursday by Tampa Electric Co. to convert part of its Big Bend Power Station to natural gas. The move away from coal would provide consumers with cleaner, more efficient energy, helping the environment and continuing to nudge the nation's energy mix in a better direction. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Tampa Electric is seeking approval to convert one of its coal–fired units at Big Bend in Apollo Beach in southern Hillsborough County to natural gas and to close another coal-fired generator. The utility would repower Unit 1 with a combined-cycle unit fired on natural gas only. The update to the 1970's-era facilities would make more efficient use of steam power, enabling Tampa Electric to reduce its use of coal, cut the emission of harmful pollutants and close a second coal-fired unit altogether.

The plan, which goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet sitting as the Power Plant Siting Board, which oversees certifications for energy facilities in Florida, is a practical step in a state where fossil fuels still rule, economically and politically. While the Sierra Club and other environmental advocates say it doesn't go far enough to end the state's reliance on fossil fuels, the plan is a significant step away from coal with clear public benefits. Given the political indifference in Tallahassee to solar and other renewables, it would be a mistake to reject a smarter energy source because it is not the ideal.

Administrative Law Judge Francine M. Ffolkes captured the merits in an 88-page order issued in May recommending the governor and Cabinet approve the project. Ffolkes described the generators Tampa Electric selected as "the most efficient" technology available for utility scale power plants. And Ffolkes found "significant" environmental benefits in the project, which projected carbon dioxide emission rates of 737 pounds per megawatt-hour of energy produced, compared to current emissions when operating with gas (1,250 pounds per MWh) or coal (2,180 pounds). All told, the project could reduce global-warming greenhouse gas emissions by at least 18.5 million tons by 2047, and by much more if coal were to otherwise re-enter the picture.

Every state and local agency that examined the plan has signed off. The administrative judge also found other benefits; the amount of water needed from Hillsborough Bay to cool the facility would be reduced by 25 percent, while new screens would return more fish from the intake flows back into the bay. By 2023, when the project would be complete, coal would comprise 12 percent of Tampa Electric's energy mix, half the figure from 2017.

Solar and other renewables must play a larger part in the nation's energy mix, and that's certainly true locally and in the Sunshine State. But the Siting Board, which has the final say on approval, has a plan before it that better balances reliable demand, energy efficiency and the environment, and it pushes coal further off the table. It's a big improvement on a strategy that's still overly dependent on fossil fuels, and it deserves support.