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A Florida utility ditches coal, doubles its solar, and leaves out a big part of its story

Florida utility Tampa Electric Co. has announced it will retire three coal units and double its solar output within two years. That’s good news, but in an interview published last week, its CEO doesn’t mention the fact that the vast majority of its power comes from natural gas or whether it plans to transition away from the methane-producing fossil fuel.

Tampa Electric’s solar…

Tampa Electric has supplied electricity to the Tampa Bay area since 1899. Its electrical system currently features 655 megawatts (MW) of solar, enough to power 100,000 homes. The utility wants to add an additional 600 MW of solar in 2021, 2022, and 2023.

So its new total of 1,255 MW of solar would be enough to power 200,000 homes by 2023. Tampa Electric serves 800,000 customers in west central Florida.

Tampa Electric’s new-ish president and CEO, Archie Collins, who joined the utility in February, told the Tampa Bay Times in a story published on August 5:

We currently have on our system 655 megawatts’ worth of renewable energy, of solar. That’s enough solar power to power 100,000 homes, just to ballpark it, and it represents between 6 and 7% of our total energy sales.

So we will be at 14% by the end of 2023, and we are committed to even more beyond that.

He doesn’t comment on what “beyond that” means in the interview.

(And the math above doesn’t add up for me. If Tampa Electric has 800,000 customers, how is solar only going to provide 7% of total energy sales if 1,255 MW can power 200,000 homes? Am I missing something? Feel free to comment below.)

As for rooftop solar, as of September 2020, only 0.7% of Tampa Electric’s customers had it.

The utility also says it will upgrade its infrastructure and retire three out of four coal-burning generating units at the Big Bend coal plant in Tampa. Unit 1 will be converted to use natural gas combined-cycle technology by 2023.

…and natural gas

Collins continues in his interview:

I think it would surprise many of our customers to know that in just the last five years, we have reduced our consumption of coal by 95%. In the last 20 years, we have reduced the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that we generate as a company by 50%, even though we produce 25% more power than we did 20 years ago.

Cool. That all sounds great, right?

But here’s the thing. The vast majority of Tampa Electric’s energy comes from natural gas – a fossil fuel – yet Collins doesn’t even mention the words “natural gas” in the Tampa Bay Times article. Collins says all the right things about solar, and it’s nice to see some rapid momentum and goodbye to coal, but in reality, the Florida utility has a long way to go to get clean.

Natural gas fueled about 74% of Florida’s electricity net generation in 2019, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Monash University’s associate professor Shayne McGregor, a Chapter 3 lead author of today’s hugely impactful UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, said in an emailed statement:

The next two decades are particularly critical. It will require sustained and concerted global efforts targeting rapid reductions in CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases to limit warming to 1.5°C in line with the Paris agreement.

Read more: The IPCC climate change report – what it says and what we can do

Photo: Wikipedia

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in White River Junction, Vermont. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.