Talk of putting wind turbines off Florida is little more than a lot of hot air

Wind power is still cleaner than what Deepwater Horizon produced

October 21, 2021 7:00 am

An offshore wind development. Credit: Konstantin Sahnjuk / EyeEm/Getty Images

I grew up playing on the beaches near Pensacola — splashing in the surf, collecting shells, building sandcastles. To me, those shimmering white dunes and bobbing sea oats are more of a signifier of Florida-ness than all the citrus boxes, seafood platters, and theme parks put together.

Even the serendipity of Florida beaches tickles my fancy. A partial list of the odd things that have washed up on our beaches includes a swordfish eye as big as a softball, part of European rocket, 1,000 pairs of shoes, wild boar carcasses, a chunk of whale blubber that became known as “the St. Augustine Monster,” and, of course, bales of marijuana known as “square grouper.”

Then, in 2010, I watched in anger and horror as something new washed ashore: glistening globs of weathered oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. They were showing up on the beaches I had played on as a child, arriving two months after the rig exploded off Louisiana.

The first Floridian to spot those tar balls was Robert K. Turpin, a fourth-generation native in charge of Escambia County’s marine resources department. I thought I loved the beach, but this is a guy who loves the beach so much that his ringtone made the sound of waves slapping the shore.

Turpin got up at 4:30 a.m. one morning in 2010 and put on his county uniform and drove out to Pensacola Beach, where, by the light of a half moon, he could see gobs of black goo littering the normally pristine sand.

Unbelieving, he reached out and touched one of the globs. “And, that was … the world changed,” he said a decade later.

I thought about Robert Turpin poking the brown goop when I read a story in The New York Times last week that said the Biden administration is turning its back on offshore drilling rigs such as Deepwater Horizon (hurray!). Instead, the paper’s headline said, “Biden Administration Plans Wind Farms Along Nearly the Entire U.S. Coastline.”

“Speaking at a wind power industry conference in Boston, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said that her agency will begin to identify, demarcate, and hopes to eventually lease federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Maine, and off the coasts of the Mid-Atlantic States … to wind power developers by 2025,” the story said.

“Hey,” I said, “wait just a sandspur-picking minute!”

Look at a map of the state. Florida has more than 1,260 miles of coastline — more coastline than any other state in the continental United States. If you’re putting wind turbines along the coastline, that means you’re going to be lining them up next to Florida, right?

You’ll have to forgive me for not trusting Interior to do a good job on Florida’s exterior. After all, that agency oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which in its infinite wisdom said in 2017 that Florida manatees are no longer an endangered species, yet we now are seeing nearly 1,000 of them wiped out in a single year by malnutrition.

Meanwhile, a different part of Interior — the Minerals Management Service, as it was known then — issued the permit that BP needed for cranking up the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, declaring it safe to operate prior to it exploding and sinking.

After witnessing the mess that Deepwater Horizon made, I don’t want any more oil to show up on Florida’s glorious beaches. But I am not keen on seeing Interior planting a bunch of wind turbines just offshore either.

But after I talked to several folks, it dawned on me that maybe I don’t have to worry.

‘A less-smart place’

When people in Florida talk about alternate energy, they seldom bring up wind. Instead, they talk about solar power. After all, we are the Sunshine State. We get lots of sun, and we ought to be producing a lot more solar energy than we already are.

There’s also a project using the power of the Gulf Stream to generate electricity. Last year a company called OceanBased Perpetual Energy worked with Florida Atlantic University to test whether the ocean current would turn turbines to produce an electrical current. It did.

When it comes to wind, though, Florida is known more for its balmy breezes than any steady gusts. “Steady gusts” are what wind power requires. They are as necessary for wind power as chocolate chips are when you bake chocolate chip cookies.

Wind turbines in Wisconsin. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Florida does not have sustained on-shore winds like they have in Nebraska and Oklahoma,” said Susan Glickman, a longtime advocate for clean energy in Florida.

I think the only exception to that rule is in Tallahassee, and then only when the Legislature is in session. That’s the time when there might be enough huffing and puffing to get the blades turning on a whole bunch of turbines.

One Florida company is definitely in the wind power business. NextEra Energy of Juno Beach is the biggest producer of both wind and solar power in the world. NextEra operates across 37 states and Canada, with wind farms in places like Kansas.

But it has zero plans for any wind farms in its home state.

“There are smart places to put wind turbines and less-smart places to put wind turbines,” a NextEra official told the Palm Beach Post in 2012. “Florida is a less-smart place due to the lack of wind resources.”

An outsider tried to put one here. Ten years ago, a St. Louis company, Wind Capital Group, proposed building wind turbines on sugar cane land just north of Lake Okeechobee.

Environmental groups opposed the Sugarland Wind project, arguing that the proposed location would slaughter migrating birds drawn to the Everglades. Nevertheless, the company got local and state permits to build Florida’s first wind farm, despite its own estimates that its 114 turbines would kill nearly 500 birds a year.

Then, in 2013, before construction began, Wind Capital Group abruptly dropped the whole thing, citing “market forces.”

Ever since then, Glickman said, nobody has talked about doing wind power here.

Complicating matters is that, until January, the occupant of the White House was the world’s greatest opponent of wind power, a Floridian named Trump. He did more than just rant about the noise of the blades causing cancer (which, by the way, they do not). He imposed a moratorium on all offshore energy development off Florida, and that includes not just offshore oil and gas but also offshore wind turbines.

“That moratorium goes into effect in 2022 and lasts for 10 years,” said Chris Carnevale of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The only way to stop it is for Congress to pass a law overturning it before it takes effect, he said.

But as you may have heard, Congress is stuck in the mud right now, spinning its wheels instead of spinning any wind turbines.

This is because of one man — the one who, coincidentally, has been taking a ton of fossil fuel campaign contributions, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who also happens to be chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The senator (cough, cough) from coal country (cough, cough) doesn’t like the parts of the Biden bill that would pay utilities to get off fossil fuels, even if fossil fuels are bad for the rest of America. Can’t have that clean energy stuff mucking up our dirty economy, you know!

Better than BP

I asked the Department of the Interior to explain to me what in the Haaland its secretary was talking about when she mentioned places for offshore wind in “federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.” I got a reply email from John Filostrat, a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — that’s the name the Minerals Management Service took on after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“We are in the earlier planning stages to assess commercial interest in the Gulf of Mexico, while obtaining public input to increase our understanding of the area,” Filostrat said. “One of our goals is to identify areas where offshore wind development can be safely and responsibly developed, while avoiding or reducing potential conflicts with other existing uses and protecting environmentally sensitive areas.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Credit: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

How preliminary is this planning stage? They haven’t had any conversations yet with the fishermen who depend on the Gulf to supply their catch, according to Annie Hawkins, executive director of a pro-fishing group called Responsible Offshore Development Alliance.

A government map that Carnevale pointed out to me shows a potential leasing area in federal waters — i.e., nine miles from land, because federal waters are six miles farther from shore on Florida’s Gulf side than on its Atlantic coast. This one is due south of the Alabama-Florida state line.

But neither of us could name even one wind power company vying for a lease there — not even offshore oil companies like BP, which are now trying to get into the offshore wind business by citing their extensive experience with building offshore platforms. (No, really! They think that’s a good thing!)

We couldn’t name one because there isn’t one, said Jeremy Firestone, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Research in Wind.

Nobody’s vying for a lease for a wind turbine farm offshore of Florida for the same reason there’s no one vying for a spot on land in Florida: Except for the occasional hurricane or tropical storm, Florida’s offshore areas lack wind.

“Theoretically wind [power] can work in the Gulf of Mexico,” Firestone told me. “But practically, it’s not going to happen in the near future. … It’s going to be a while before anybody builds any offshore wind farms off of Florida.”

Filostrat’s agency paid for a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to assess offshore wind energy resources in the Gulf. One of the sites they picked for the study was off Pensacola.

But they found that the “highest wind resources” are in the western gulf — in other words, near Texas, not the Florida Panhandle.

The bottom line here is that Haaland’s bold talk of building wind turbines off nearly every coastline is just a lot of hot air. Florida is a lot of things — a place with great beaches and award-winning state parks, home to every tourist attraction you can think of from the mermaids of Weeki Wachee to Dinosaur World, as well as the producer of lots of wacky crime log items. But it is simply not a suitable spot for wind power.

I suppose by making such an outlandish pronouncement, Haaland was hoping people who only read headlines would think the Biden administration is taking a sweeping approach — wind turbines everywhere! — to the big, frightening problem of climate change.

The truth is much, much narrower, which is what often happens with government programs. Remember the “War on Drugs”? It was a big, sweeping program that sounded good but obscured the fact that nobody in authority really knew what to do. But we sure spent a lot of money on it!

The irony is that we do know what to do about climate change: Drive less, use less power, plant trees, avoid subsidizing fossil fuels. We can focus our personal energy on boosting renewable energy sources — solar in Florida, for instance — and not just on making big promises that will never pan out.

Florida certainly has more to lose from climate change than nearly every other state. Our coastal areas tend to be low-lying, so sea level rise hits us pretty hard, not just with storm surges but with sunny day flooding. Also, we’re already pretty warm, day and night. And we’ve already got problems with hurricanes, toxic algae blooms, and mosquito-borne diseases. Those are all things that climate change is expected to make worse.

In a world full of change, though, some things remain the same. That’s why I wound up calling Robert Turpin again.

He’s still working the same job he had in 2010, still overseeing marine resources for Escambia County. He told me he’d be OK with wind turbines several miles off Pensacola.

“If it’s not too far out,” he said, “it could serve as a sort of an artificial reef structure that could be a type of habitat for fish.”

One thing’s for sure, he said. Wind turbines are a lot less likely to explode and spill thousands of gallons of oil that wind up washing ashore on Florida beaches.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.