Florida’s first wind farm face long odds

What U.S. company produces the most wind energy? It’s Juno Beach-based Next­Era Energy Resources, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, formerly known as FPL Group. The company has 76 wind farms in 17 states and Canada. Its roughly 9,000 wind turbines are capable of producing enough emissions-free energy to power about 1.9 million homes.

Florida, where wind resources are considered minimal, has no wind farms, and Florida Power & Light Co., NextEra Energy’s utility subsidiary, wants to change that.

It’s pursuing testing for a possible wind power project on citrus land in western St. Lucie County while keeping its option open for a Hutchinson Island wind farm.

In June 2007, two days after regulators rejected its proposal to build a coal plant, FPL announced plans to build the first wind farm in Florida on Hutchinson Island, 8 miles south of Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County. The idea, in line with Gov. Charlie Crist’s push for greener energy, met resistance from nearby residents.

The company envisioned a $45 million wind power project with six wind turbines as tall as 40-story buildings at about 400 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty. The site was FPL land surrounding its nuclear plant.

"We didn’t want them to ruin our beaches in a place where there is no wind," said Julie Zahniser, founder of the Save St. Lucie Alliance.

FPL has turned its attention elsewhere in St. Lucie County, said FPL’s director of project development, Buck Martinez.

Martinez agrees that Florida has limited wind but said FPL plans to begin testing in northwest St. Lucie soon. There might be a pocket of wind off Lake Okeechobee, he said.

St. Lucie County rancher Mike Adams said his land is being considered as a spot to conduct the tests. "We looked at some of our citrus land to do that. We would be interested in working with them," Adams said of FPL.

In 2008, FPL was awarded a $2.5 million state grant to help pay for the coastal project. It has spent $153,800 of that on wind studies and efforts to obtain permits. That grant can be used only for the Hutchinson Island project, which has sufficient winds to make a project economically viable, Martinez said.

Based on data from 2002 to 2006, the average annual wind speed at the Hutchinson Island site is 13.8 mph at 80 meters (87.48 yards), said WindLogics, another NextEra subsidiary.

Hurricane-force winds could be a problem, said Juan Soto, a Sunrise engineer hired by the Save St. Lucie Alliance. That’s because there are no wind turbines manufactured to sustain gusts that would be as high as 211 mph.

"Just a gust from a Category 1 hurricane would be enough to knock down the best wind turbines on the market," Soto said. Soto said environmental concerns include the effects on wetlands, birds, bats, fish and sea turtles.

"We should be trying to protect the environment, not destroying it in the process of getting clean energy," Soto said. "It is more logical to pursue solar projects."

Florida’s wind resource, especially on land, is not as strong as in other states, said Kathy Belyeu, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association. Florida’s potential lies offshore in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico.

In June, the company received an 18-month extension on its Hutchinson Island project. It’s not pushing for a hearing and has agreed to put its application in abeyance, Martinez said.

"While we wait for legislation, we will study the interior opportunities in the county," Martinez said. "There is not a lot of data for the state of Florida supporting wind. That is what we are trying to gather."