Why FPL's 'clean' power plants are ranked in report among top carbon producers
On the outskirts of Wellington, just before 20-Mile Bend, stands a behemoth of a power plant on a site as big as 166 football fields.
The West County Energy Center, first serving Florida Power & Light customers in 2009 before reaching its current capacity two years later, is a natural gas-burning plant.
The plant is part of a fleet of new-era power generators often cited by the state's largest utility as jewels in its transition to modern, clean energy. With these facilities, FPL replaced inefficient 20th-century coal plants and weaned itself off foreign imported oil.
So it's particularly jarring to have seen the facility land on a list of polluting electric plants that included plenty of old-school coal power plants.
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FPL bristled at the inclusion of its power plants on the list by the website Find Energy, which aggregates and analyzes finalized government data on electricity companies. But the inclusion raises a complex but important question as 21st-century energy policy grapples with ways to further reduce carbon emissions as a climate-change doomsday clock continues to tick-tock.
Namely, how "clean" can, or should, an energy system be to make inroads in tackling climate change as the urgency heightens?
FPL: Plant has "best available" and "most advanced" emission controls
The West County Energy Center uses three combined-cycle generating units that burn natural gas in a turbine much like a jet engine and in turn uses that exhaust to make a second power source of steam. In all, the center produces enough electricity for 750,000 homes and businesses.
According to FPL, the plant also has “the best available and most advanced emission-control equipment.”
Yet great amounts of power come at a price.
This particular power plant ranked in the top third, along with coal-powered plants, in the list of 100 power plants across the country that belched out the most carbon dioxide in 2020, according to the report by Find Energy.
Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and electricity production accounts for 25% of the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States in 2019.
That’s not where the story ends, however, or the whole picture.
While the West County Energy Center ranked 29th on this list for emitting more than 7.3 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide in 2020, equivalent to emissions from nearly 1.6 million passenger cars, FPL is also correct when it says the facility is among the most efficient power plants in the country.
In 2020, the plant generated 19.7 million megawatt hours of energy and had an emissions rate of 371.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. In comparison, the top carbon-emitting plant on the list is a coal-powered one in Missouri that produced 16.5 million megawatt hours of energy but emitted almost 1,009 kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour — less energy, but more emissions.
Data shows FPL plant is highly efficient compared to others
In other words, FPL's gas-fired plant produced almost 20% more power but with a third of the emissions as the coal-powered plant. As such, it would seem the FPL plants inclusion on the list is unfair.
Still, plants with high emissions are going to draw attention in the overall effort to cut down on greenhouse gas, experts say.
In seeking ways to reduce carbon dioxide pollution — particularly to address federal emissions goals that aim to stem the effects of climate change — it’s natural to look at the high-emitting plants to find “opportunities for efficiencies,” said Dalia Patino-Echeverri, an associate professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who studies public policy design for energy systems.
“Once we realize the large emitters are large emitters because they’re providing service of great magnitude, and we look at it and we see it’s so efficient, we have our answer,” Patino-Echeverri said. “You always have to keep in mind what matters most is the rate (of efficiency).”
She likened it to comparing emissions from a personal car used once a week and a city bus that takes many trips.
“Do you need this bus to transport this many people, and do you need it to be this large?” she asked hypothetically. “You need this large power plant.”
Still, there could be some benefit for consumers to be cognizant of a plant’s overall emissions, if it’s not the only factor being considered, she said.
“Maybe we should double down on energy-efficiency measures. From a public perception, maybe there is value in highlighting where our emissions come from,” Patino-Echeverri said.
Knowing this may inspire consumers to seek out energy-efficient solutions in their own homes — like LED lighting, efficient air conditioners or improving insulation — and be more aware of the electricity they use, how they use it and perhaps use less.
Find Energy, experts laud FPL for use of natural gas
Burning natural gas results in about half of the carbon dioxide emissions of burning coal, which also releases harmful metals and gases into the environment.
“The fact that (West County Energy Center is) using natural gas is a plus,” Matt Hope, chief operating officer of Find Energy, said in recognizing that the report factors in a plant’s efficiency, but doesn’t focus on it. “The negative is the immense amount of megawatts, but it’s a need for the community. At least it’s not coal.”
The intent of the report was to “highlight coal and the negative of coal” and offer information that may be pertinent to those who live near the plants, Hope said. He added that carbon dioxide is emitted from burning natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, and is “being created whether they’re scrubbing or storing it.”
The Find Energy report relied on data that is submitted by power companies to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The list consists of 83 coal-powered plants, 16 natural gas plants and one plant that uses petroleum coke as its primary fuel type.
Four other FPL natural gas plants also made the list, but are still ranked among the most efficient in terms of emissions per megawatt hour of energy produced.
“The companies that are doing the right thing still have those kinds of plants in their portfolio, specifically coal, but they’re working toward other alternatives,” Hope said.
Added Patino-Echeverri: “The No. 1 factor to reduce greenhouse gases is the transition from coal to gas. This plant has been part of the solution.”
FPL blasts Find Energy report
An FPL spokesman, nonetheless, took issue with the Find Energy report citing concerns over a general legal disclaimer on the website and the use of a “misleading” statistic of overall emissions rather than the emissions rate.
The company provided The Palm Beach Post with 2019 data on emissions and energy production at power plants, including its own, which was in line with the source of the 2020 data used by Find Energy.
“We are consistently one of the cleanest electric utilities in the country,” FPL spokesman Chris McGrath said. “We are investing in clean energy because it’s the right thing to do for our customers. It’s the right thing to do for our state.”
Indeed, Find Energy also named NextEra Energy, FPL’s parent company, as one of the top renewable energy producers in the country, with another one of its subsidiaries, NextEra Energy Resources, running solar and wind projects across the country.
Maggie Shober, research director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, agreed that the report shows just one of many ways to look at emissions. But Shober said a “missed opportunity” is not factoring in methane emissions associated with the leaking of natural gas, from the production of the fuel to its use.
Methane is 25 times stronger at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. While the report contemplates the impact of fracking and transporting natural gas, it is not quantified.
“What we don’t think about is gas has to be brought up from the earth. That is a fairly energy-intensive process in and of itself. There are emissions associated with the electricity that’s used to frack that gas as well as the local pollution issues,” she said. “If we’re trying to look all in, there’s a whole lot to consider upstream from just the burning of the fuel.”
FPL touts its 'gas guzzler' to 'hybrid' modernization strategy
FPL’s McGrath said the Find Energy report also doesn’t tell the company’s whole “modernization story.”
Two decades ago, the company was using more than 40 million barrels of oil, the most of any electric utility, McGrath said. But in the years that followed, FPL would loosen the grip of its dependence on oil-powered plants, including demolishing a 1960s-era Riviera Beach oil plant, with its memorable red-and-white smokestacks, and rebuilding it in 2014 as a natural gas plant.
“We took a 1960s-gas guzzling Cadillac and we replaced it with a Ford Focus hybrid,” McGrath said.
The company bought an independently owned coal-powered plant in Indiantown in 2016 with the intent to close it, which occurred last summer.
Today, FPL said, two-thirds of its power comes from natural gas, followed by nearly 20% nuclear, 4% solar and almost 3% coal, which comes from a plant NextEra partially owns out of state. One-tenth of 1 percent of the power comes from oil.
FPL is currently “modernizing” its plant in Dania Beach, expecting the new gas plant to come online this year, but doesn’t anticipate building a new natural gas-powered plant in its 10-year outlook.
Overall, McGrath said the modernization improvements have made their plants 30% more efficient, saved customers more than $11 billion in fuel and kept 165 million tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted in the atmosphere.
The company is making renewable energy investments, including:
- Building 30 million solar power panels by the year 2025, a goal anticipated to be met five years earlier than planned, and paid for by ratepayers. The company anticipates the panels will be able to generate 11,657 megawatts.
- Pairing solar energy centers with battery storage, including the world’s largest battery in Manatee County.
- Developing a green hydrogen plant on the site of the former Indiantown coal plant.
Analyst: Utilities 'doing their part,' urgency of the moment requires more
Patino-Echeverri said the utility industry as a whole is making strides to make its plants more efficient. Switching from oil or coal to natural gas is a “very important step, but that’s not enough,” she said, adding that carbon capture, utilization and storage technology must be considerations to further reduce emissions.
“I think they are doing their part. It’s also up to us to push them more. There’s no time and it’s urgent,” she said.
While some of the actions taken by FPL tick the boxes to reduce emissions, more can be done, Shober said. “I think we see in the trend overall nationally is we’re not moving fast enough toward these cleaner sources as we clearly need to,” she said.
While the transition to natural gas has reduced emissions that would otherwise come from oil or gas, and installing utility-scale solar is an important step, “getting to zero emissions takes a lot more than that,” she said.
Just as well, such a reliance on natural gas leaves consumers susceptible to the volatility of gas prices. Just in December, the Public Service Commission approved a request from FPL to recover costs from customers due to a 10% increase in natural gas prices.
Adding more rooftop solar is one way to cut down on emissions and make the grid more resilient, Shober said. But advocates fear that a FPL-drafted bill to rewrite the state’s net metering rules will slowly chip away at the main financial incentive for homeowners and businesses to go solar.
Another factor is promoting energy efficiency at the consumer level, Shober said. FPL argued that it is more cost-effective to build a power plant than to invest in energy-efficiency programs because building codes and energy-efficiency standards in consumer products have improved.
Too, FPL has not set a goal to reduce its emissions to zero because “we believe in setting measurable and achievable goals,” McGrath said. NextEra’s CEO called net-zero emission targets “disingenuous” without plans to get to “real zero,” according to reports.
It’s a tough, and expensive, goal to achieve, Patino-Echeverri said.
“There are reasons to prefer alternatives that are not fossil-fuel intensive. At the same time, getting to 100% elimination of greenhouse gas emissions for the energy sector is very hard to do with just renewables. We may need some portion of our energy to still come from fossil fuels, because there are industrial processes that are hard to electrify,” she said. “There has to be a transition."
FPL lauds its reliability and maintains it has the lowest electricity rates in the country. McGrath added that the company’s move toward cleaner energy sources is a “march, not a sprint.”
“We are committed to being as clean as we can as fast as we can without sacrificing reliability or affordability,” McGrath said.
Hannah Morse covers consumer issues for The Palm Beach Post. Drop a line at email@example.com, call 561-820-4833 or follow her on Twitter @mannahhorse.