Fighting Coal in the South: Early Victory Sets the Stage

Stephen Smith | March 23, 2011 | Energy Policy

The following is an adaptation of a story about SACE’s early work. The original story appeared in a publication released by the Energy Foundation:

Our battles require consistent and focused pressure here in the conservative Southeast, a region that is slow to embrace progressive energy policies. Energy Foundation support starting 17 years ago has enabled the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) to gain technical and organizational sophistication in this tough region of the country.

One significant victory came in Florida in 2005. Following a number of hurricanes that caused natural gas prices to spike, then-Governor Jeb Bush sought to “diversify” fuel sources by adding more coal to the state’s generation mix. Florida Power and Light (FPL) responded by proposing a 1,700-megawatt coal-fired power plant in St. Lucie County. With Energy fpllogo1Foundation support, SACE added staff who worked in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council to oppose the new plant.

When FPL pressured St. Lucie County commissioners to grant a zoning amendment required for the plant, experienced SACE staffer Susan Glickman got busy bringing in a parade of experts from the medical, religious, and business communities to educate commissioners about dirty coal,.

After months of discussion, the stage was set for a zone-change vote at an evening meeting in November. Initially, four of the five commissioners appeared to support the project. The room was packed with about 450 people, and more than 100 of them—organized by Susan—spoke in opposition to the plant.

Meanwhile, a landowner crucial tcoal-plantjpgo the deal chose to oppose the zoning change, triggering the need for a super-majority vote. Desperate to win her over, FPL offered her $13 million—significantly more than the land’s value—if she would drop her opposition to the zoning change. A commissioner privy to the offer grilled company representatives at 3 a.m., forcing FPL to admit its last-ditch effort. This drove the last of the fence-sitting commissioners to pull their support. At 5 a.m., after an 11-hour meeting, the state’s largest utility was handed a unanimous defeat of its proposed coal plant.

By the time FPL secured a new location in an economically depressed county further inland, Governor Charlie Crist had replaced Bush. SACE and a number of other organizations had already educated the new governor about the dangers of climate change in Florida. We simultaneously fought an additional proposed coal plant in rural Taylor County. This particular proceeding before the Public Service Commission was groundbreaking: It was the first time Florida utilities were forced to consider the cost of carbon in planning for a new power plant. Shortly after entering office, Governor Crist sent the signal to pull the plug on all new coal plants in Florida.

If we’d failed at that early commission meeting, the St. Lucie plant would have been past the point of no return by the time the new governor took office, and this story would be very different. SACE and our partners changed the course of coal in the South when we prevailed over the conventional wisdom.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
My Profile