Explore Bay Soundings

Fueling the Future


By Victoria Parsons

For most Florida residents, falling gas prices are a bright silver lining with a cloud. The silver lining is the money we’re all saving. The cloud is lower gas prices that may result in less emphasis on alternative fuels, at least until gas hits $3.00 a gallon again.

To a great degree, the initiatives planned for Tampa Bay and Florida are likely to continue even in the face of falling fuel costs — good news for the bay because air-borne emissions from power plants and automobiles are a major source of contaminants in water and sediments.

Some alternatives are right around the corner, like the ethanol plant planned for Port Sutton and ongoing efforts to repower bay area electrical plants that increase output while reducing emissions. Others are years from realization but offer breath-taking potential that could reduce or even eliminate our reliance on petroleum and make a dramatic difference in Tampa Bay air and water quality.

Not a Corny Concept

Ethanol isn’t a new idea. In fact, Henry Ford’s model Ts were flex fuel vehicles that could run on either petroleum or ethanol distilled from corn. The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 made petroleum less expensive, so gas-powered engines became the norm.

Which just goes to show that what goes around comes around. While some scientists question the true costs of ethanol production, most researchers — and certainly the federal and state governments — strongly support fuel made with American farm products.

The first-ever ethanol plant in Florida is on track to open in early 2008 at the Port of Tampa with a second plant on the drawing board for Port Manatee as soon as a lease is finalized and permits approved. Plans call for the ethanol to be blended with gasoline already moving through the port, mostly in a 10% blend with 90% gasoline that nearly every automobile on the road can run without modification.

“It’s a very viable alternative to imported oil,” notes Bradley Krohn, president of US EnviroFuels. “It’s readily available and doesn’t require any changes in most cars.” Since approximately 11% of petroleum used in the US today comes from the Middle East, switching to so-called E10 ethanol blend would help ease dependence upon that volatile source. Along with the advantage of avoiding imported fuel, using E10 reduces toxic auto emissions by about 30% and greenhouse gas emissions by 12 to 19%.

Krohn also is hopeful that local retailers will carry E85 — 85% ethanol blended with 15% gasoline — when the plant comes online. While the state’s first E85 plant opened in Tallahassee in September with Gov. Jeb Bush and other officials lauding the new fuel, that company plans to focus on north Florida rather than Tampa Bay.

Corn, generally grown in the Midwest, is currently the most efficient source for ethanol, but Florida growers are exploring other options.

“Many cars, including GM, Ford and Chrysler SUVs and pick-up trucks, are equipped to run E85 even though it’s not easily available,” Krohn said. He recommends visiting www.e85fuel.com for a list of automobiles that are equipped to run on the new fuel.

And while ethanol-blended fuel may help the US move toward energy independence, technology must change before it will become the economically feasible standard in Florida cars. The EnviroFuel plants will be fueled with corn imported from the Midwest, with the increased transportation costs subsidized through the sale of byproducts from the distilling process, including animal feed and carbon dioxide sold to make carbonated beverages. The market for byproducts, however, won’t support the 20-plus plants needed to blend 10% ethanol in all Florida gasoline.

“Florida can only support a finite number of corn ethanol plants,” Krohn said. “After two or three plants, we’ll need to find other fuel sources, but that’s a totally different process and it isn’t commercially viable yet.”

Theoretically almost anything can be distilled into ethanol, from corn (currently considered to be the most economical choice in the US) to sugar cane or other fast-growing grasses and even waste materials from processing orange juice or our own backyards.

“We’re highly committed to working with local growers,” Krohn said. “Growing corn is a little tricky in Florida but we could use grain or sweet sorghum or potentially sugar cane grown in Central Florida specifically for ethanol.”

That may tie perfectly into efforts in Polk County where one of the nation’s largest producers of ethanol owns 250,000 acres of reclaimed phosphate lands through Mosaic, the publicly traded fertilizer company created when Cargill and IMC Global pooled their phosphate holdings. Using nutrient-rich clay settling ponds created as part of the phosphate mining process would allow growers to harvest two crops per year, although harvesting would be difficult during the rainy season when the clay ponds are often muddy.

“You could grow sorghum, switch grass, castor or any number of leafy crops,” notes Jim DeGennaro, director of business development for the Central Florida Development Council. “There’s lots of land there and we’re fielding calls from interested partners.”

Two small-scale ethanol producers already are operating in Polk County, one using waste materials from orange juice processing, another using out-of-date soft drinks, he adds. “The technology isn’t quite there yet, but farm-to-fuel is a big opportunity and hundreds of scientists are working on it.”

Solar-Powered Hydrogen

The prototype for what could become the ultimate Florida fuel may be under development at Homosassa Springs State Park where a solar-powered hydrogen fuel cell is providing electricity for a wildlife pavilion.

Hydrogen, the third-most abundant element on the earth’s surface, could be considered the perfect fuel because its only emission is water. The challenge is separating it from other elements and typically more energy is used to produce it than it creates – unless the power is solar.

A photovoltaic solar system at Homosassa Springs State Park powers a hydrogen fuel cell which provides electricity for the park’s wildlife pavilion.

The system at Homosassa isn’t financially feasible for market distribution yet, but it’s functioning well, notes Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for Florida Progress Florida, which won a Best Practices award from the Council for Sustainable Florida for the innovative installation.

“The technology is still in its infancy, but it works and we’re tweaking the system to make it more efficient,” she said. The system, built by Hydrogenics Corp. in a partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, could ultimately produce 10 kilowatt hours but is currently working at 2 kwh, enough power to run 20 100-watt light bulbs, during the testing phase.

Further south, Florida Power & Light is building the state’s largest solar array in Sarasota – half the size of a football field – to generate 250 kilowatts of renewable energy. The installation was funded through Sunshine Energy, the utility’s voluntary green power program where 24,000 participants paying an extra $9.75 on their utility bills subsidize 1,000 kwh of clean electricity.

In the Sunshine State, solar power could be collected on almost every rooftop, but the potential hasn’t been realized. Industry leaders hope new tax incentives from state and national governments will change that.

Part of the problem, says Bruce Kershner, executive director of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, is that people confuse photovoltaic and thermal solar power. “Photovoltaic – which is used to create electricity – is still expensive but thermal solar power used to heat water is cost effective and has a very fast payback.”

A federal tax credit for 30% of the cost of solar equipment (to a maximum of $2000) is available through 2007, with state rebates of $500. Plus, homeowners who live in areas served by Florida Progress may be eligible for an additional $450 for solar thermal hot water systems.

Since up to 25% of total energy use is related to heating water, overall savings could be significant. In fact, according to engineers at the University of Wisconsin’s Solar Energy Laboratory, if half the homes in the country switched to solar hot water, it would equal doubling the fuel efficiency of all cars in terms of CO2 emissions.

Of course, not all solar power requires high-tech installations. According to Project Laundry List, an advocacy group for sustainable energy, 6 to 10% of residential electricity is used drying clothes. At that rate, a clothes line could pay for itself in just a few weeks.

Florida – the Kuwait of Renewable Energy

Florida, says Tampa engineer and entrepreneur Chris Sauer, is the Kuwait of renewable energy. But he’s not talking about solar power — he’s out to collect electricity generated by water flowing north in the Gulfstream. “We couldn’t do this anywhere else,” says Sauer, currently serving as president and CEO of Ocean Renewable Power Company. “The Gulfstream is the strongest continuous flow of energy in the world and it’s only 10 miles off the coast.”

Working with Florida Atlantic University and the U.S. Navy’s South Florida Testing Center, ORPC plans to moor a tractor-trailer sized generator 164 feet underwater at the western edge of the Gulfstream off Fort Lauderdale. Each generator is expected to create approximately 118 kilowatts of energy in a five-knot current, and they can be tied together in multiples of dozens or even hundreds as the market demands.

TECO slashed emissions of nitrogen, sulfur and mercury when its Bayside power plant (formerly Gannon) was repowered with clean-burning natural gas.

“Ocean currents are reliable and we can generate power with no emissions, no lubricants and everything is underwater and out of sight,” he says. “And the power is virtually endless.”

The first year will be spent intensely monitoring energy production as well as environmental impacts, particularly since not much is known about natural resources at that depth. “We need to prove and improve the technology and monitor fish, noise, vibrations and other characteristics,” he said. “We don’t think there are many fish that could be impacted, but nobody’s really sure.”

The company has preliminary approval to place generators at six sites along the east coast, from Marathon north to Port St. Lucie.

Along with the Florida experiment, ORPC will place generators in passes in Alaska and Maine where fast-running tidal currents can be tapped. “The original plan was to focus on the Gulfstream, but the technology will work there too,” Sauer noted.

Europe leads the world in harvesting power from oceans, and scientists there estimate that converting just 0.1% of the available energy in oceans could satisfy world needs for energy five times over.

Betting on Biomass

As any gardener will tell you, green stuff grows fast in Florida. TECO and Florida Progress are both taking advantage of that with programs that burn biomass to produce electricity. TECO, which had experimented with burning bahiagrass and eucalyptus before renovating its Gannon plant, works with a South Florida company that burns sugarcane byproducts to produce electricity.

“When we lost the capability to produce it locally, we looked for a good alternative that’s in the state’s airshed,” notes Alan Denham, renewable energy program manager.

And sometime before the end of 2009, Progress Energy is expecting to purchase enough power to run approximately 83,000 homes from the world’s first commercial-scale biomass power plant. While a location for the plant is still being decided, Biomass Investment Group in Gulf Breeze will use a fast-growing perennial grass to produce power in a “closed-loop system” that creates no additional carbon.

Repowering Boosts Bay Clean-up

While repowering electric plants is much more prosaic than capturing energy from the sun, plants or oceans, it’s already making a significant difference in the air over Tampa Bay. TECO repowered its Gannon power plant from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, reducing nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by almost 99%. Progress Energy Florida has proposed repowering its Weedon Island plant to natural gas, doubling capacity and reducing emissions by more than 82%.

Repowering Gannon – now called Bayside – reduced nitrogen emissions from about 30,000 tons in 1998 to 450 tons in 2005, according to Byron Burrows, manager of air programs. Sulphur dioxide emissions dropped from 65,000 tons to 19 tons and mercury emissions plummeted from 400 pounds per year to practically nothing.

“Tampa Bay was close to non-attainment (of national air quality standards) when we repowered Gannon but now we’re well under even the new and more restrictive standards,” Burrows said. “There have been some mobile source (automobile) improvements, but much of the improvement came from the repowering.”

The decision to repower Gannon, made in 1999 at a cost of $730 million, put TECO ahead of the game, he adds. “We decided to settle with the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) rather than litigate and so we’ve already done the things that other companies are going to have to do later.”

Back to Top

Red Tide - "As Predicable as the Weather"

Rethinking the Built Environment - A Solution for Florida's Water Woes

Gabe Vargo: Blending Professional Expertise with Personal Passion

News Briefs & Follow Through

Fueling the Future

Freecycle Makes Recycling Easier

Tiny Tampa Bay Fish Key to Evolution of Immune System


Move Over Piggy, it's Tegus Turn

Saving the Bay, One Scoop at a Time

Commentary & Opinion

Quarterly Calendar

Young Salts Dive into Science