Renewable Energy A Focus Of Green Conference

By Chris Felker

The first part of the full agenda at the packed Florida Green, Energy & Climate Conference/Expo served up a lot of fuel for dreams among those who get excited about renewable energy sources and smart grid technology — things that keep utility bills low and help save the planet simultaneously.

And there were plenty of those people present at the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Wednesday, May 16, judging by the warm reception that the presentations and speakers received, including the annual essay contest winners.

In her welcoming address, Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelley Vana thanked all those in attendance.

“Kudos to all of you for being here,” she said. “You really believe the environment needs to be protected, or you all see the wisdom of taking part in something that is very good for economic development, or you believe in both.”

She noted that the arc of her career has taken her from teaching environmental science years ago to getting things done for the environment, such as working in the state legislature on one of the first energy bills to be enacted in Florida, and now on the county commission to advance efforts for building renewable energy sources and, in so doing, a sustainable economy.

Those efforts received a boost with approval this week of a county measure to finance sustainability activities such as the four-county compact on adapting to climate change, and the OK this spring of Florida’s first wind energy “farm,” which will be constructed in the agricultural areas between the western communities and Lake Okeechobee.

George Gentile, a local environmental consultant with a 30-year landscape architecture and land planning career in the public and private sectors, and an elected Jupiter Inlet District commissioner for a dozen years, moderated the first panel on renewable, clean energy.

Panelists were Robin Saiz, director of the 200-megawatt Sugarland Wind Project, which Gentile just shepherded to the commission’s approval for the Wind Capital Group; J.L. “Buck” Martinez, project development chief for FPL parent NextEra Energy; Mark Hammond, director of the county’s Solid Waste Authority; and Susan Skemp, director of the Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Florida Atlantic University.

Gentile opened by explaining that renewable energy consists of all inexhaustible sources of power including biomass, solar, wind and hydrological, and noted that all the fields were represented at the conference. He said that the International Energy Agency projects that in the next 50 years, solar energy will probably become the largest producer of energy in the world and that Florida is poised at the forefront in innovations.

“We’re seeing an upsurge in solar energy initiatives in Florida in general; we’re seeing a commitment to wind energy’s future here, including the new Sugarland initiative by Wind Capital Group,” he said.

Hammond, a nearly 30-year veteran at the SWA, touted the authority’s projects to reduce, reuse and recycle the county’s waste products.

“We handle about 2 million tons of waste per day, about 8.4 pounds per person per day, which is about double the national average,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with vegetation, but it’s still high. So our focus is on recycling and on creating energy from waste.”

Hammond highlighted the SWA’s groundbreaking last month for a renewable energy facility that will be the nation’s cleanest-burning waste-to-energy plant when complete in 2015. It will produce enough power for 56,000 homes and reduce waste being landfilled by around 85 percent — extending the life of the current landfill by 30 years. Hammond said it will be equipped with the most advanced pollution control technology available and also cut methane emissions substantially.

Martinez started by citing FPL’s activities other than renewable energy projects that are “trying to position economic development in the state,” including the modernization of its 1960s-era power plants in Cape Canaveral and Riviera Beach that will come into service in 2013, and noted that the Public Service Commission just authorized a similar project at the Port Everglades plant, to be completed in 2016.

He briefly described the company’s foray into the solar power arena, which last year vaulted Florida up among the leading states in production of electricity from the sun, but concentrated on the promise of solar power production, if the legislature would just act to facilitate it.

For four years, Martinez said, state lawmakers have failed to pass any new energy legislation. “The vast potential has not been realized. Florida is one of the only states in the nation that doesn’t have a renewable energy policy,” he said.

As a result, billions are being invested elsewhere because state policies don’t effectively support renewable energy initiatives, he said.

Saiz gave an update of where his company is on the Sugarland wind farm. He said that with the county’s OK secured, the project will be submitted for federal review by the end of May and that the process will take “from eight months to two or three years.”

Finally, Skemp gave an engrossing presentation about the FAU laboratory’s research initiatives. “We were established in 2007 with funding from the state through the Centers of Excellence program. In 2010 we were designated as one of three national centers by the U.S. Department of Energy,” she said. “We’re the one focused on ocean current and ocean thermal energy conversion.”

The former seeks to harness the force of the Gulf Stream’s constant flow to generate electricity; the latter would use the “thermal gradient of the surface water to the bottom temperature” to force another fluid, possibly the boiling point of ammonia, to turn a turbine and create power.

The conference, produced by the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, continued on Thursday, May 17. Look for another article next week. For more about the conference, visit