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Rep. Castor Asks Governor For TECO To Switch To Renewable Energy At Big Bend

Solar Panels line the manatee viewing area next to TECO's Big Bend power plant
Steve Newborn
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Tampa Electric recently announced plans to convert one of its coal-fired units at the Big Bend power plant to natural gas. But Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor wants the state to block that plan this week. Castor chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. She's taken the unusual step of asking the governor and his cabinet to review TECO's plans. She noted a report last weekby the Union of Concered Scientists that says more days of extreme heat are coming if carbon emissions aren't reduced.

"It's in our best interest not to substitute another dirty fuel source," Castor said. "Florida is the sunshine state. We should be investing in renewable, clean energy. And doing it quickly. And unfortunately, Florida is far behind when it comes to our transition to clean energy."

Castor wrote a letterto Gov. DeSantis and the Cabinet - who act as the state Power Plant Siting Board - saying that the retrofit would be a long-term decision and that relying on natural gas that is produced by hydraulic fracturing - or "fracking" - would produce more carbon that switching to renewables, such as solar power.

In May, Administrative Law Judge Francine M. Ffolkes issued an 88-page recommended order that said DeSantis and the Cabinet should approve Tampa Electric’s plan.

The governor and Cabinet are slated to take up the issue during a meeting Thursday.

Ffolkes said the project would reduce emissions when compared to the current operation of the two 1970s-era units. Also, Ffolkes found that the change would reduce water withdrawals by up to 25 percent at the plant.

The project, at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach, would involve shutting down one generating unit, known as Unit 2, in 2021. Another unit, known as Unit 1, would be upgraded as a natural-gas plant, eliminating the possible use of coal in the unit. The upgraded plant would begin operating in 2023.

Diana Csank, a representative of the Sierra Club, told Cabinet aides last week that questions remain about Tampa Electric’s plan to use natural gas instead of alternative energy sources.

“This is an unprecedented position that the company is taking, that its project, that would double the output of a power plant, an already large existing power plant, and commit Florida to relying on a fossil fuel, gas, that’s coming from thousands of miles away for the next 30 years,” Csank said. “Their position is that no one should review whether that’s even needed.”

TECO attorney Larry Curtin replied that natural gas would create energy more efficiently.

"All these arguments that are being made now by the Sierra Club were presented and rejected," Curtin said. "The project has been determined to meet all of the standards that are applicable."

Earlier this year, TECO spokewoman Cherie Jacobs said switching from coal is part of the company's long-term plans.

"It is part of Tampa Electric becoming cleaner and greener. It is a step toward moving away from coal," Jacobs said. "It will significantly reduce emissions by more than 60 percent for those two units. And we're cutting our use of coal in half at the site."

Copyright 2019 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.