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Residents balk at windmill energy use

Along with mangroves and grass flats and tarpon rolling lazily on top of the water, boaters on Florida’s Indian River Lagoon one day may see six 410-foot-high wind turbine generators towering over one of the estuary’s barrier islands.

Will this project — the first of its kind in Florida — strike a blow against global warming? Or will it be just a tax credit for Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL)?

Attorney Julie Zahniser thinks the 40-story windmills — three on each side of FPL’s St. Lucie nuclear power plant on Hutchinson Island — are a $45 million government-sponsored boondoggle.

“In fact, we believe that this proposal is nothing more than a false-green scam designed to transfer wealth from ordinary citizens to FPL,” writes attorney Zahniser, who lives along the Indian River across from the power plant. Her e-mail explaining her opposition to the project says Citizens for Tax Justice found FPL paid zero income tax on $2.2 billion in profits in 2002-03 largely due to tax credits on wind farms it has built around the country.

“They get the majority of these tax benefits for every turbine they put up regardless of the actual energy produced,” says Zahniser, the founder of the Save St. Lucie Alliance, a group that is fighting the giant windmills.

FPL denies this.

“The federal tax credit for wind projects only applies if the turbines are actually producing energy, and 100 percent of the benefit goes to FPL’s customers,” FPL says in a Q&A responding to the criticism. It says the federal tax credit enables wind energy to compete with fossil-fuel power plants. The six turbines will deliver nearly 22 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually while saving 17,000 tons of carbon dioxide from spewing into the air each year — the equivalent of eliminating the emissions of 2,600 cars, it says.

FPL argues that alternative energy sources such as wind will help it achieve Florida Gov. Charlie Crist‘s goal of reducing utilities’ greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2017, 1990 levels by 2025 and 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.

The federal government also has set a goal for utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity nationally through wind power by 2030.

The key question is whether Florida, with its variable winds — stiff northerlies accompanying winter cold fronts, gentle southerlies wafting through in summer and ferocious winds blowing in with thunderstorms and hurricanes — is really a good place to harvest wind energy. Department of Energy studies characterize winds along the Florida’s coast as “fair” for generating electricity, though its offshore winds are rated “good.” FPL says it is working with wind turbine makers to solve “the difficult and expensive challenges” of building and maintaining offshore turbines, but those efforts are not ready to be commercialized. It says the efficiency of land turbines has improved to the point that they make sense at places like Hutchinson Island, where winds average 14 mph at 80 feet.

Zahniser isn’t convinced.

Some of the biggest wind farms — 100 turbines generating 150 megawatts — are on the plains of South Dakota, where winds average nearly 18 mph.

“We don’t want to see our tax dollars and rate dollars wasted on something that won’t work and will harm the beauty of our Florida shoreline,” Zahniser says. “If FPL had to foot the bill themselves, they would never do it.”

She says the turbines won’t really save on fossil fuel consumption because their output is intermittent and variable, and cannot be stored for later use. That means they can’t supply “base energy” for the grid and fossil-fuel plants can’t be taken offline. “Industrial wind power does not reduce dependence on other fuels, does not reduce emissions or pollution and does not mitigate global warming,” according to a position paper by the Save St. Lucie Alliance.

Again, FPL disagrees. It says the St. Lucie turbines together will generate up to 13.8 megawatts, which is enough to supply electricity to more than 3,600 people.

“The proposal for six wind turbines would produce clean energy for FPL customers at a reasonable cost” — about 33 cents a year per Florida customer for the life of the wind farm, the company says.

There are other environmental and aesthetic objections to the project, as well. Fears that turbines the size of transmission towers will one day dot the Florida shoreline or move in next door are driving some of the opposition.

“These things are taller than the Statue of Liberty,” says Tom Steinruck, a tug captain who lives on the Indian River near Fort Pierce. “They are gigantic. One thing they’d be good for: You could navigate from the Bahamas to here without GPS. You could see [the generators] halfway across. They’re that tall.”

Steinruck says there are also environmental concerns. “[The turbines] are going to kill big birds — eagles, osprey, hawks, vultures,” he says.

“We’ve got two to four bald eagles on Hutchinson Island,” plus 30 threatened or endangered species on undeveloped property around the power plant. “You couldn’t get permission to put a 1,200-square-foot beach cottage on that land,” he says.

FPL says the turbines won’t be on the beach, and they will have colored lighting so they won’t disturb sea turtle nesting. The company says fewer than one in 10,000 human-related bird deaths in this country is because of wind turbines.

St. Lucie County officials were looking for an independent consultant to review FPL’s environmental impact statement for the project. The utility has asked for a hearing before the county’s planning and zoning commission, but a date had yet to be set in mid-August, according to FPL spokeswoman Sharon Bennett.

Audubon of Florida and Natural Resources Defense Council have written letters supporting wind power in Florida, but they also advocate a rigorous environmental review of the St. Lucie project to set a standard for others to come.

FPL also has three major solar energy projects in the offing: a 25 megawatt solar photovoltaic facility in DeSoto County, one of the world’s largest, a 10 megawatt solar photovoltaic installation developed with NASA near the Kennedy Space Station in Cape Canaveral, and a 75-megawatt solar thermal facility at the Martin Power Station near Indiantown, the largest single solar thermal facility outside California and the world’s first connected to a natural gas-fired plant. FPL says the three projects will prevent release of 3.5 million tons of greenhouses gases.

So why not add wind power to the mix?

“[The] illusory benefit is not worth the environmental degradation and harm …” Zahniser says.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue.