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FPL pipeline, solar push mark new year

Central Florida’s energy picture for 2017 – a mosaic of controversy, new direction and uncertainty for power bills – includes:

•The election of President Donald Trump, casting doubt on the steps by Barack Obama to fight climate change, including a proposal to reduce emissions from electric plants such as those owned by the city of Orlando that burn coal.

•The completion of a pipeline by Florida Power & Light Co.’s parent and other companies, stretching from Alabama to the Orlando area, and giving the state its third, major pipeline for natural gas, upon which some experts say Florida is overly dependent.

•A continued rise of solar energy – which includes the advent of residential cooperatives, help from Orlando’s utility for customers who install solar systems and more construction by FPL of huge solar plants.

Jim Fenton, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center, thinks FPL’s multi-billion-dollar Sabal Trail pipeline is an outdated investment, with prices for solar energy continuing to fall.

“I believe the utilities would make more money with the solar and batteries and little to no environmental impact would occur,” Fenton said. In coming months, a solar plant costing about $15 million will rise at Stanton Energy Center, east of Orlando near state roads 417 and 528. More than half of its 37,000 solar panels will be erected on top of a 90-foot hill made of ash from the city’s burning of coal in two generators.

But even as the solar plant takes shape, the Orlando Utilities Commission will watch for initiatives under the Trump administration for environmental regulations for use of coal.

Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency is Scott Pruitt, attorney general of Oklahoma and a foe of the EPA’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases from coal-powered electric plants. OUC’s appetite for coal has varied as coal regulations have loomed and as natural gas has become more popular for producing power. The units have consumed as much as 1.9 million tons of coal in 2011 and 2014 or as little as 1.3 million tons in 2012, with 1.7 million last year.

“OUC has always used the latest technologies to ensure our coal generation is as clean as possible,” utility spokesman Tim Trudell said. “Coal is just one part of our portfolio, making up about one-third of our generation last year.”

The Sabal Trail pipeline won federal approval in August last year and began construction in September, stirring protests from groups concerned the pipeline will contaminate springs, rivers and wetlands. Sabal Trail spokeswoman Andrea Grover said the 515-mile project is advancing: More than 80 percent of the route has been cleared; more than half of pipe is in the ground; and restoration has begun on more than 20 percent of the construction path.

“We are still on target to be in service by the end of June,” Grover said. “This means the pipeline is operational and natural gas is flowing through it for use. Grover said the pipeline would be able to withstand stresses of a sinkhole and will not harm wetlands or aquifers.

“Sabal Trail respects the right of individuals to peacefully protest and express their positions in public areas,” she said. “It is our obligation to safely and securely construct and operate our facilities, and we can neither tolerate nor allow trespassing.”

Opposition to the Sabal Trail pipeline has intensified in the shadow of the violent protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Drawing national attention, Native Americans and environmentalists fear that the pipeline would harm sacred lands and the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, a Sierra Club organizing representative in Florida, said opposition to the Sabal Trail pipeline, even with construction well along, will continue and even intensify. She said several protest camps, not organized by Sierra, have formed in rural areas along the pipe’s route. Malwitz-Jipson said that hundreds of lakes, rivers and wetlands, including Central Florida’s Green Swamp, are threatened by the pipeline.

“We need Congressional leadership to stop the damage by stopping the construction and letting nature recover,” Malwitz-Jipson said. “This project is not in the interest of the state of Florida.” FPL also will start work on four, enormous solar plants from South to North Florida.

Each of the plants will generate as much as 74.5 megawatts, or six times as much power as the solar plant that OUC is building. In Orange County, several hundred homeowners have signed up to participate in a solar cooperative sponsored by the League of Women Voters Florida, Orange County and Orlando governments and Sierra Club.

OUC also is launching an initiative to help customers install solar systems.

This story was re-posted from the Orlando Sentinel.

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