Columbia County in north Florida is at a crossroads.
Not because it is home to the intersection of two highways that cross the state, Interstates 10 and 75. Rather, it’s because this small rural community of 70,000 people may soon be home to a handful of solar power centers.
One of those is already up and running — the Sunshine Gateway Solar Energy Center. The Florida Power & Light facility generates 74.5 megawatts, enough to light up 15,000 homes from a field just off I-10 where tens of thousands of cars pass by it every day.
“It sends a pretty good message about the Sunshine State as it relates to the state’s commitment to solar energy,” said Glenn Hunter, who heads Columbia County’s economic development office. “These solar arrays are just the beginning of future technology that power companies are going to be able to utilize on these properties that are going to be even more significant to the smaller communities.”
The irony of course is that politically blue renewable energy is powering economic development in politically deep red rural Florida.
In 2016, President Trump won Columbia County with 70% of the vote. In next door Suwannee County, which Trump won with 76% of the vote, FPL’s Echo River Solar Energy Center also produces 74.5 megawatts of power from 330,000 panels on 500 acres.
On a list of 14 solar centers FPL is constructing now, or has plans to develop, 13 are in counties Trump won, ranging from Baker County, which Trump bagged with 81% of the votes, to Hendry County, which the president took with a more modest 55% of the vote.
To Hunter, the renewable energy investments aren’t about blue or red electoral politics but about positioning the county for future development driven by solar-generated electricity.
“We are a green county,” he said, adding another item on the to-do list is attracting a recycling facility.
Renewable energy advocates say they hope bringing the benefits of green energy to red regions of the country breaks the polarized deadlock on climate change.
“Some people might say it’s going to be impossible to get the Right to acknowledge the science of climate change because it’s so deeply entrenched in the politics of it,” said. Steve Melink, a lifelong conservative and author of Fusion Capitalism: A Clean Energy Vision For Conservatives. “The best chance maybe is to talk about this great economic opportunity.”
In truth, Florida has little to lose and a lot to gain from an expanding renewable energy economy.
Another major hurricane, Delta, is churning in the Gulf of Mexico, reminding Floridians how vulnerable they are to monster storms fueled by warming and rising seas. By contrast, the state does not have a coal mining industry at risk of suffering major job losses from a phase out of fossil fuels to power generators and turbines at electric plants.
Instead, the solar industry is a promising job creator, advocates insist. A survey on salary.com shows that solar unit installation work — placing panels atop home and building rooftops — pays an average of $70,298 a year, with a range from $58,138 to $86,950 in Florida.
“Look at all the wind jobs created in Texas and other red states in the plains … and the solar farms in areas of Florida,” Melink said. “You’ve got far more renewable energy resources available to you in Florida and than the fossil fuel industry. Gosh, Florida is the Sunshine State, it’s not the oil state or the coal state. That’s the way of the future.”
The paradox, Melink said, is that the bitter fight over the 2000 presidential election in Florida is one of the sources of the liberal-conservative chasm on climate change.
Melink points out Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, already in the crosshairs of conservatives as President Bill Clinton’s vice president, became a further polarizing figure to Florida Republicans when he contested the elections results, casting a glaring spotlight of ridicule and scorn on the state for hanging chads and butterfly ballots.
Later in the decade, Gore became the chief advocate for what was then called “global warming,” winning an Oscar for his 2006 documentary an “An Inconvenient Truth.” As a result, Melink argues, Republicans then harbored the same enmity for his climate change cause as they they did for Gore himself.
Today, the political arena is no less partisan.
During this week’s vice presidential debate, Republican Vice President Mike Pence echoed conservatives’ disdain for the Paris Climate Accord as well as the progressive Green New Deal. Pence, like Trump and their campaign surrogates, gave a full-throated endorsement of continuing of a fossil-fuel driven economy.
To be sure, solar advocates in Florida have complained for decades that electrical output from solar facilities have inexplicably lagged given the obvious advantage in the so-called Sunshine State.
Alissa Jean Schafer with Energy and Policy Institute points to documents submitted by FPL, Florida’s largest utility by far, to state regulators projecting total solar power production will account for around 15% of its total power sources by the end of this decade.
“It’s much lower than it could be and that it should be,” she said of the overall energy industry’s solar-based output. “In the conversations that utilities are having at earnings meetings with investors they talk about how cost effective solar and renewable energy is and yet we are not quite seeing it to the level that we could and should here. On the other hand, we have in Florida such a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, specifically natural gas, and that can be a financial risk.”
Utilities have opted for natural gas over oil and coal to power their power plant turbines because it is a cleaner burning fuel that allows them to reduce emissions. But Schafer warns natural gas and fossil fuels are vulnerable to price volatility from disruptions in global politics and market forces.
“The sun is not impacted by global politics, she said.
FPL said in a statement it is “leading one of the largest solar expansions in the U.S. while continuing to keep customer bills among the lowest in the nation.” The company is on track to install 30 million solar panels by 2030 and its 28 solar energy centers in operation with 1,972 megawatts of production with 14 additional plants under construction.
But Schafer said the state’s electric utilities still trail public sentiment, which she said has connected “the dots” between an existential threat to the state from hurricanes and encroaching seas and a need to rely less on fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.
“We know and the science tells us that as climate change gets worse, the water is warmer and we’re seeing more dramatic weather events every year,” Schafer said. “You see on the news there’s another 100-year storm and it’s definitely happening much more frequently than once every hundred years. People are starting to connect the dots.”
Schafer said as with all things technology, from cell phones to HDTVs, the price of solar generation is dropping as global use increases. There’s no reason for utilities, regulators, businesses and the public not to aggressively pursue more use of it, she added.
“That’s what we’re seeing as solar becomes more popular and as people realize “Hey, this is something we need” as temperatures get warmer and as we deal with these extreme weather events … that has helped drive the cost down globally and here in America as well,” she said.
Schafer said solar won’t become a major energy source without large scale utility, community and rooftop use. But that can’t happen without state utility regulators require it — and set policies to prod it.
Instead, she said it’s often been used as a feel-good prop.
“Unfortunately on the utility side of things getting their cake and eating it too,” Schafer said. “They are able to take advantage of the popularity of solar and create these jobs, on the one hand, and get all the PR benefit but on the other hand still be investing in natural gas.”
But Hunter in Lake City, Fla., said FPL’s involvement in his community is far more than public relations.
To start with, he said the Juno Beach-based utility is helping promote economic development and business relocation to his county.
“They are helping to promote us in ways that we probably don’t have, in terms of resources, to promote ourselves because of their sheer size and strength,” he said, saying FPL is connecting them with manufacturing and distribution businesses looking at the county that is the intersection of north-south and east-west interstates.
“We’re kind of new to the scene as it relates to attracting industry,” Hunter said.
Second, FPL is working with the county to plan out energy needs into the foreseeable decades to accommodate that development — which is where the additional solar generation farms come in.
And, third, the property taxes the utilities pay for land use make it possible for the county to afford extra water and sewer lines to facilitate the development of added commercial and residential properties as well as use of electric vehicles and other innovations.
“You can’t just build that infrastructure and spend tens of millions of dollars and hope they come,” he said. “You kind of have to do it as you go.”
Hunter added that Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity has taken notice and is earmarking $20 million to $25 million to assist the county in pursuing its development strategy
“It’s a real intricate plan that each step takes you a little step higher and has a purpose. And we are executing that,” Hunter said. “That solar array does bring an awful lot of attention in a very positive way.”
Melink said that’s inspiring, and maybe it will change attitudes in bastions that have denied the impacts of climate change.
“The clean economy is the greatest opportunity of the 21st century,” he said. “Our whole world has to transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based on clean energy.”
Problem is, he bemoans, this was the attitude that leaders in Florida and the United States needed to have adopted two decades ago. Now, a lot of time has been wasted and much more forceful action is necessary.
Melink argues the nation needs to “put a price on carbon” by taxing it. Advocates say a carbon tax would increase the price of burning fossil fuels and prod much faster development of renewable energy sources.
Melink concedes a carbon tax would have to be “revenue neutral” — meaning offset by tax cuts to an equivalent dollar amount — to even have a chance at being politically palpable.
“Put a tax on carbon so those who are imposing these costs onto society are now having to bear that cost,” he said. “They are now going to be incentivized like never before to reduce their carbon foot print.”
What’s not debatable, he said, is that time is running out.
“I don’t think we have time to waste,” he said. “Climate scientists are in agreement that we have to run this corner in 10 years.”