By Craig Pittman
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.
“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.”
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.
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 five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently 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.
The dude says
We’re all gonna die from windmill cancer…
Before they befoul our shores and bankrupt us, someone might like to check Cape Cod MA where they dismantled the windmills built at great expense and find out why.
L Shaver says
I worry about the vibration from the turbines interfering with whales, dolphins and any other creatures that use sonar to interact or for location.
I’m all for finding other forms of energy, but not harming more wildlife.
It’s about time!!!!!
Oh Florida! is a fun read.
In this article, my reading tires got stuck in the mud at ““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.”
Dennis C Rathsam says
I say put those widmills, in Bidens home state of Delaware…Right by his beach house!!!!
I agree, Dennis….he can eat crow (along with all the other birds slaughtered by the blades).
And I say Put them in front of t-rumps home in florida!!!!!!
Wind turbines off the coast of Fla. WOW, that is interesting. Hurricanes comes close to Fla. on a consistent basis. Think about the oil platforms near the Louisiana shore. Do we need wind turbines off our coast .I dont think so . A powerful hurricane will destroy them. Mankind csn say whst they wish about reinforcement but we are no match to mother nature. We don’t need wind turbines.
Well, they can build them, but I wonder what a CAT 5 storm would do to those platforms and blades. But anything is better than an oil rig sitting just off shore.
And regarding the whales : https://us.whales.org/2018/12/05/the-winding-way-of-whales-wind-farms-2/
But it’s really too soon to tell if offshore wind turbines actually cause issues in whales. personally, the pipeline from Canada to TX was a better and working revenue generator.
Ray W. says
Once again, a little background can go a long way to help mark101 better understand the situation.
The northern leg of the XL pipeline always was planned to end in Nebraska, not Houston. The southern leg of the XL pipeline opened years ago, linking Nebraska to Houston for either refining or export of any crude oil transported by the pipeline. The last research I did years ago revealed that crude oil transported from North Dakota to Houston cost roughly $15 per barrel by rail all the way to Houston. It cost far less to transport the crude oil by rail to Nebraska, plus another $5 per barrel to go the rest of the way by pipeline. The southern leg of the XL pipeline opened to full capacity transporting North Dakota crude oil. If the northern leg of the XL pipeline were to be built and connected to the southern leg, the North Dakota oil would be displaced and American oil companies would have to pay the higher rate to rail companies to transport their oil. Mark101, like so many others, appears to lack a measure of understanding of what is really happening in the American energy marketplace. The only way the northern leg of the XL pipeline makes economic sense to American energy companies is for another company to build a second southern leg alongside the already existing southern leg from Nebraska to Houston. That way, Canadian crude oil would be able to flow alongside North Dakota crude oil all the way to Houston. I repeat several previous posts when I point out that when the entire XL pipeline was initially proposed, just before new fracking methods and chemical compounds became widely available, North Dakota oil wells were producing 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day. During the Obama administration, the daily production rate topped 1 million barrels. This 10-fold increase in crude oil production initially had to be transported by rail all the way to Houston. My son is a rail dispatcher for a national rail company. I often talked with him so many years ago about how the company’s tracks were at full capacity and that the rail company was allocating billions per year to upgrade the rails in order to increase average speeds, thereby lessening turnaround time for trains running back and forth from North Dakota to Texas. An entire crop of winter wheat could not be transported because crude oil transport was so much more profitable to the company. When the southern leg opened, crude oil rail transport needs lessened and the wheat was finally transported out of North Dakota.
There are other problems with Canadian tar sands crude oil. One is that it is a heavier grade of crude oil. A chemical thinner needs to be added to tar sands crude oil at the pipeline head in order for it to be thin enough for transport. The chemical thinner is used in other crude oil situations, too, not just for transporting tar sands crude oil. The chemical thinner interacts with steel, weakening untreated steel pipelines and normal steel-walled rail cars, so specially treated pipes and specially designed rail cars need to be used. The specially designed rail cars are used at a greater cost to crude oil companies. As an example of the unintended consequences that cost-cutting can cause, years ago a Canadian rail company’s train derailed in a small town near Quebec. Many crude oil carrying rail cars ruptured and the crude oil caught fire, killing 47 residents. The rail cars were designed to resist rupturing and they should not have ruptured, but they were the normal type of crude oil carrying rail car. It was later alleged that examination of the steel walls of the derailed rail cars revealed significantly deterioration and that evidence of the chemical had been found in the areas of the town that had burned. Lawsuits were filed based on allegations that some of the crude oil had been thinned out by the chemical and that the company paying for the transport had failed to report that fact to the rail company, in order to save money. Had the rail company known of the situation, the specially-designed rail cars would have been used, at a higher cost to the energy company. I accept that these were allegations that I read about years ago. I don’t know the fine details of how the lawsuits turned out, but the disaster is referred to as the Lac-Megantic Rail Disaster. The reason for the derailment was that the train stopped for the night, but the conductor failed to set enough hand brakes before leaving the train unattended. One of the locomotives was set to idle during the night in order to provide air pressure for the air brakes, but it caught on fire and the engine shut off. Without the extra stopping power provided by the air brakes, the handbrakes soon failed. The train had stopped on a downslope and it rolled downhill, picking up speed, eventually derailing at an estimated 100 kph.
Ray, In the United States, the existing Keystone Pipeline System runs from the North Dakota border “south through South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska, where it splits – one arm running east through Missouri for deliveries into Wood River and Patoka, Ill., with the other running south through Oklahoma to Cushing and onward to Port Arthur and Houston, Texas.”
Gail Walton says
The turbines should be the new variety without windmill like blades that injure birds, especially during migrations. The newer models of turbines are cylindrical but have just as much energy produced.