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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Why Florida doesn’t have wind energy, but lawmakers want to curb it anyway

Two of the Siemens Gamesa offshore wind turbines stand off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, June 29, 2020.
Steve Helber
/
AP
Two of the Siemens Gamesa offshore wind turbines stand off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, June 29, 2020.

A bill nearing passage would ban offshore wind turbines in state waters.

If you drive through parts of Texas, California, the Midwest — or look off the coast of several northeastern states — you can see enormous wind turbines, their rotations powering millions of homes as part of a push to make wind part of our country’s energy future.

But not so in Florida, a state whose lower wind speeds have kept it from becoming a wind energy hot spot. And lawmakers are poised to pass a bill that could help keep it that way by banning offshore wind turbines in state waters.

That ban was recently added to a major energy omnibus bill that is nearing passage and is the priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast. The proposal would also roll back some regulations on natural gas pipelines and delete the majority of references to climate change found in state law.

Its backers, including Renner, say the bill is about reorienting Florida’s energy priorities to put affordability first. But opponents have panned the proposal as moving the state backward by further encouraging our reliance on natural gas and other fossil fuels.

The offshore wind restrictions are at the heart of that debate.

Here’s what you need to know about wind energy in Florida and how House Bill 1645 would impact it:

Why doesn't Florida have wind energy?

Florida has zero operational offshore or onshore wind farms, according to 2023 data collected by the federal government. The reason is pretty simple: We don’t have strong, sustained winds, at least on land.

When it comes to offshore, other states’ waters, particularly in the Northeast and parts of the west coast, have stronger winds than Florida, making them earlier targets for this technology. Hurricanes also pose higher risks to the equipment.

So why ban offshore wind?

The bills would prohibit offshore wind turbines within 1 mile of the coastline or intracoastal waterways, as well as within all state waters, which extend 3 nautical miles from shore on the Atlantic side of the state, and 9 nautical miles on the gulf side.

The bill’s sponsors have said the ban is sensible because wind energy isn’t feasible in Florida. Renner, the House speaker, said it will protect the state’s prized beach views.

“I think it’s very similar to offshore drilling. Floridians don’t want to sit on the beach and look at oil derricks, and they don’t want to sit on the beach and look at big windmills,” he said. “It doesn’t preclude them from doing it elsewhere in the state where it’s possible, but I think that’s a fair place to land.”

When Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, who’s sponsoring the Senate version, has been pressed about whether this bill disregards climate change, he has argued that the restrictions to wind energy will protect the environment.

“I think there are many causes (to climate change) and I think our weather patterns are cyclic. … Do I think there are things we can do better? Absolutely,” he said. “Anything that can protect our environment, i.e. let’s stop offshore wind until we can make sure it doesn’t disrupt the sonar of our whales, the ecosystem.”

“Certainly putting large energy infrastructure in the ocean, maybe it’ll change ocean habitat. But what will be far more impactful to whales, and is an existential threat, is climate change.”
Aaron Rice

Do offshore wind turbines harm sea life?

Experts are skeptical. Aaron Rice, a principal ecologist at Cornell University, said data is still being collected but so far, scientists have found “no significant impact” to whales from offshore wind.

Opponents to wind energy often raise questions about whale health — specifically, whether the noise from the installation of the turbines onto the sea floor increase whales’ stress or make it harder for them to communicate. The concerns were prompted by a spate of whale deaths off the East Coast last year.

But Rice said offshore wind companies are making this process quieter. And the species face much bigger threats from boat collisions and fishing gear, plus the warming ocean could make their food less plentiful.

“Certainly putting large energy infrastructure in the ocean, maybe it’ll change ocean habitat,” he said. “But what will be far more impactful to whales, and is an existential threat, is climate change.”

What impact could these offshore wind restrictions have in Florida?

Because the bill bans not just turbines but also transmission cabling in state waters, opponents have questioned whether this would prohibit all turbines, even those farther from shore, with cables that pass through Florida waters to reach land.

Erin Baker, the faculty director of the Energy Transition Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said this bill’s effects may not be felt immediately.

“Right now it’s not a big deal, but as the technology evolves and changes — which it has been doing very, very rapidly — there may be a day when offshore wind makes sense in Florida,” she said. “In some sense, they’re not banning anything right now. They’re banning future wind (energy), which could be 10 times better.”

“Right now it’s not a big deal, but as the technology evolves and changes — which it has been doing very, very rapidly — there may be a day when offshore wind makes sense in Florida. In some sense, they’re not banning anything right now. They’re banning future wind (energy), which could be 10 times better.”
Erin Baker

The bills’ sponsors have said if technology improves the state could repeal the restrictions.

Henry Kelley, chairperson of Blue Wind Technology, which manufactures turbine parts in Pensacola, said the proposal could impact Florida’s turbine manufacturing industry, which employs thousands. The race is on to develop the best technology for wind turbines, Kelley said, and he fears the bill will send a message that Florida isn’t interested.

“Every day I have to compete with the Chinese … and they undercut on labor at every turn. Our advantage is superior quality and superior engineering,” he said. “It’s just going to make it impossible to convince somebody to partner with one of our state universities to develop that research.”

Other major players in wind energy in Florida include General Electric, which has a manufacturing plant in Pensacola, as well as NextEra, Florida Power & Light’s parent company. While NextEra doesn’t have wind farms in Florida, it’s “the world’s largest generator of clean, renewable wind energy,” with 119 wind farms in North America, according to its website.

What else would this bill do?

The sweeping bill makes lots of other changes, including rolling back some regulations on natural gas pipelines by making it so any pipeline shorter than 100 miles wouldn’t have to go through a certification process. Currently, anything longer than 15 miles triggers that oversight. That may mean fewer public hearings for people living near the path of the pipeline to have a chance to weigh in.

It also creates a mechanism for utility companies to be able to pass on costs of relocating natural gas facilities to Floridians. That could mean an increase to customers’ bills, said Alissa Jean Schafer, a research and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, though the bill leaves some details unclear.

Collins has said if consumers’ bills did go up as a result, the increases would amount to “pennies.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

This story was produced in partnership with 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.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Emily L. Mahoney | Tampa Bay Times