Environmentalists rejoiced when city commissioners voted unanimously to power every home and business here with 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Two and a half years later city leaders say they still aren’t sure how they are going to do it.
“We’re still learning and doing a deep dive into exactly when do we retire some plants and what do we replace those plants with, and all of that still is very much being analyzed,” said Chris Castro, the city’s director of sustainability and resilience.
Across Florida, uniquely prone to climate change, local governments are bracing for higher tides and fiercer hurricanes. Some like Miami Beach are installing pumps and raising roads. Others like Satellite Beach are moving critical infrastructure to higher ground. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican elected with President Donald Trump’s endorsement, has appointed the state’s first chief resilience officer to help guide the efforts. The appointment came as part of a sweeping environmental reform by the new governor after toxic algae gripped the state in 2018, although some environmental groups point out the policy does nothing on the human-made emissions responsible for a warming world.
Land-locked Orlando is among fewer than a dozen local governments in the state that have focused on this flip side of the issue, emissions. Nationwide nearly 150 local governments and seven states have made similar pledges to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, on par with what scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
It is hard to say whether the efforts are moving fast enough, but Orlando stands out as a leader, said Bryan Jacob, solar program director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an advocacy organization based in Knoxville, Tenn.
“Orlando was one of the first and is one of the ones making the most progress,” he said.
In Orlando the commitment has set in motion one of the biggest evolutions the Orlando Utilities Commission has faced in its nearly century-long history, said Linda Ferrone, the utility’s chief customer officer. OUC is the state’s second-largest municipal utility, serving some 250,000 customers in Orange and Osceola counties.
“For many, many years, really since the beginning of electricity, it’s been centrally produced and kind of sent all around the city of Orlando and surrounding counties from one location,” Ferrone said.
That is changing fast, she said.
“Solar can be generated all over our service territory. So all of a sudden it’s not being generated in one central place. It’s being generated on roofs that are all over. It’s being generated in big fields full of arrays,” she said. “That makes a very different set of circumstances for electricity to be sent around the grid here in Central Florida or anywhere else in the country for that matter, and we have to figure that out. That takes a very different type of technology.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the utility are two large coal plants. With their looming cylinder-shaped cooling towers sending curls of steam into the clouds, the plants are visible from across the city and certainly the most conspicuous part of the Stanton Energy Center, the sprawling east Orlando energy-generating complex OUC describes as its heart. Natural gas and coal represent the largest power sources here, together responsible for 95 percent. Solar accounts for only a fraction of the total at one percent.
With no big rivers or blustery winds to serve as power sources leaders are focused on solar. Think rooftop arrays paired with batteries resembling today’s utility panels that can keep the lights running when the sun is not shining.
Since 2011, OUC has added two large arrays at Stanton, and plans call for two additional farms plus $200 million in purchase agreements with other utilities that in all will provide enough solar to power tens of thousands of homes.
“As we started to realize that solar is the primary source of energy for this area in the renewable spectrum, we realized we need to understand how solar fluctuates and what the different considerations are, and from there we started to create the resources to help inform that decision,” said Justin Kramer, OUC’s supervisor of emerging technologies.
Among other things, the utility is experimenting with floating arrays in ponds, aimed at expanding solar capacity in areas where land is scarce. The utility also is deploying 25 weather stations across the region that can provide information like barometric pressure, lightning strikes and rainfall.
“Now we’re starting to look at that weather data and make associations between changes in the weather, and changes in load,” he said, “and changes in solar production, so we can start making predictive algorithms that will allow us to make operational decisions in the future.”
The utility is investing $80,000 in the weather stations, which resemble small lunar landers, stainless steel with three spindly legs. The stations are decked out with devices that, for instance, can distinguish whether rays of light have come directly from the sun or bounced through the atmosphere, helping operators manage the arrays more productively. Another device monitors moving clouds, indicating when one array might go dark and another might light up.
“When you’re talking about a $20 million solar array, $80,000 for some situational awareness is a good situational awareness number at the end of the day,” Kramer said.
Another problem is cost. Clean energy is not cheap, although costs are expected to drop with time.
“We’ve seen millions of dollars over the past couple of years invested in driving more adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy,” Castro said, “and so we see it as an economic development opportunity to diversify our economy and attract the kinds of businesses that want to help us.”
By 2025, the utility says solar will represent 13 percent of its portfolio, making OUC Florida’s largest provider on a per-customer basis. Meanwhile demand for energy in fast-growing Orlando is projected to grow 30 percent by 2050, challenging leaders to figure out how to power more homes and businesses with 100 percent clean energy.
This story was produced by WMFE, Orlando’s NPR station, in partnership with InsideClimate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment, and the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.