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Big Bend Power Plant Unit Gets OK To Convert To Natural Gas

Big Bend
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
TECO's Big Bend Power Plant

Tampa Electric got the go-ahead from the governor and cabinet Thursday to switch part of the Big Bend power plant from coal to natural gas.

The vote was three-to-one, with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried voting no. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis voted in favor.

The move was opposed by several local politicians and environmentalists, who argued TECO should focus on carbon-free renewable energy sources. Letters of opposition were mailed to the governor and cabinet from Hillsborough County Commissioners Kimberly Overman, Pat Kemp and Mariella Smith.

"Florida should no longer be importing $58 billion dollars a year in fossil fuels that poison our water, degrade our air, and place the state of Florida, especially Tampa Bay, at severe risk of sea level rise and acidification of our oceans and waterways," the commissioners wrote. "Now is the time for Florida to embrace our energy future and use our own abundant and clean energy resource - the Sun."

Earlier this week, Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor took the unusual step of asking the governor and his cabinet to review TECO's plans. She noted a report last week by 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," said Castor, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. "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."

Susannah Randolph heads the Florida Sierra Club's "Clean Energy-Beyond Coal" campaign.

"We've had over 9,000 people write in, saying they don't support this," she said. "We have the hometown Congresswoman, Kathy Castor, demanding that we do the appropriate and thorough review of this proposal that has not been done by TECO. We have over 850 calls that have gone into the governor's office."

TECO attorney Larry Curtin said at the meeting that natural gas would create energy more efficiently. The company has said switching from coal is part of their long-term plans.

"We can’t be called to account to address all of the ills that the Sierra Club believes are happening as a result of climate change," Curtin said. "There are literally hundreds or millions of sources of carbon dioxide."

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.

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 would involve shutting down one generating unit in 2021. Another unit would be upgraded from coal to natural gas. The upgraded plant would begin operating in 2023.

Big Bend
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
TECO's Big Bend Power Plant is just off Tampa Bay in Apollo Beach


Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.