By Mary Ellen Klas
After a last-minute settlement removed the city of Coral Gables from the communities fighting Florida Power & Light, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet granted the company permission to build two nuclear generators and 88 miles of transmission lines in Miami-Dade County.
It was a victory for the state's largest utility, but it won't be the last fight. Local governments, who have challenged the placement of the 80- to 150-foot-high voltage towers along the line, are now preparing to sue the state.
"We'll continue to fight it and challenge this in court in Miami," Miami city attorney Victoria Mendez said after the two-hour hearing in the packed Cabinet room. "This entire process has been so one-sided in favor of FPL that we look forward to getting this into the court system, where justice will be served."
Under the proposal, FPL will build two new 1,100-megawatt nuclear generators, known as Turkey Point 6 and 7, at a cost of $24 billion. The power supplied by current and future generators will be amped through two transmission lines. One will be a 230-kilovolt line running from Cutler Bay, Pinecrest, South Miami and Coral Gables to a substation in Coconut Grove; the other will be a 500-kilovolt line, along the western edge of the county, adjacent to Everglades National Park.
FPL says the new lines are essential to supplying energy to South Florida's growing population. The project would not come online until 2028, and FPL predicts that, over the 40-year life of the project, customers will save $64 billion in fossil-fuel costs.
Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, sitting as the Power Plant Siting Board, unanimously approved FPL's request at the recommendation of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The announcement came after a last-minute settlement was reached between the power company and the city of Coral Gables, which is among the cities that have been at war over the proposal for nearly six years.
Under the settlement terms approved late Monday, FPL agrees to limit its pole heights for the proposed 230-kilovolt power lines to between 77 and 85 feet in Coral Gables. The current power poles in the city are between 47-72 feet, said city attorney Craig Leen. He said the settlement was the city's attempt to salvage something from a losing hand.
"We saw the proposed order. We were going to lose, so we tried to get as much as we could out of this proceeding," he said. "We believe it's in the best interests of the city."
The agreement will not keep the city from pursuing its lawsuit against FPL for violating its franchise agreement, Leen said. FPL also agreed to "make good faith effort to lower pole heights if technically feasible and practicable." It will also allow Coral Gables to install LED lights on its light poles and to save money by bidding out the maintenance of the utility poles to FPL competitors.
FPL attorney Peter Cunningham wouldn't say whether FPL would be willing to lower its pole size for other communities. "We focused on Coral Gables because they wanted to talk," he said.
Coral Gables, along with the city of Miami and the village of Pinecrest, among Miami-Dade's most affluent communities, have argued that if FPL needs the power lines, it should install them underground to avoid the negative impact on property values and economic development. FPL has argued that the cities should pay for any potential underground power lines.
Scott and the Cabinet rejected the cities' arguments, and also rejected appeals from the cities to prohibit FPL from building the transmission lines until it has received a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the new generators.
"If there is never NRC approval of these nuclear reactors, then there should be no transmission lines built -- and that's the key," Mendez told the governor and Cabinet. "It needs to be clear."
But under state law, there is nothing that bars FPL from seeking approval from the Public Service Commission to charge customers under the nuclear cost recovery fee to build the power lines even before its engineering plans and safety designs get approved by the NRC.
Critics say FPL can build the transmission lines and use them to transmit power generated by its natural gas plants -- even if it never builds the nuclear plants. Duke Energy in St. Petersburg and many other utility companies around the nation have launched plans to begin building nuclear plants but have abandoned them in the face of rising costs and cheaper alternatives.
The order approved Tuesday by the Power Plant Siting Board includes a voluntary agreement by FPL to refrain from building transmission lines in Coral Gables and Pinecrest until FPL receives federal approval for the nuclear project. But there is nothing to stop the company from building the lines along the western corridor and through the city of Miami or to change its mind.
The cities urged the Cabinet to impose tougher language -- granting the permit for any construction only on the condition that a federal nuclear permit is received -- but the governor and Cabinet rejected that.
"I hope they choose to do the right thing," Bondi said after the meeting. "Our authority is very limited."
Mendez said she was disappointed in the answer. "They should have done the right thing."
The next step for FPL is to seek approval from the Public Service Commission to start charging customers to build the transmission lines.
"We will continue to proceed with NRC approvals subject to the NRC's review schedule," FPL spokesman Peter Robbins said. "As that gets more clear, we will be able to provide more certainty on other aspects of the project, including the [Florida Public Service Commission] review of transmission lines."
In the western part of the county, FPL agreed to compromise with environmental groups and accept a proposed transmission line that would run alongside -- but not in -- Everglades National Park. There, three 500-kilovolt lines would be built on 150-foot poles. If the parties fail to reach agreement for that plan, environmental groups warn that a backup plan could harm sensitive wood-duck habitat, panther zones and wetlands.
During the hearing, Miami Dade County and environmental groups argued that the legal framework on which the governor and Cabinet were making the decision was one-sided and flawed. Proponents, including union members and local nuclear power plant workers, extolled the project's job creation value.
The decision Tuesday was just one in a string of victories for FPL since 2006, when it first indicated it wanted to take advantage of the emerging interest in nuclear power as climate change became a politically volatile issue.
In 2008, during the height of South Florida's housing boom, the Florida Public Service Commission agreed with FPL that there was no alternative available to match the potential of the nuclear plants, so it gave the company permission to start charging customers in advance to construct them.
An administrative law judge took eight weeks of testimony last year and concluded that the FPL met all the requirements of the state law that authorizes approval of power plants. FPL must receive approval each year from the PSC to continue to collect its nuclear fee, but in the last four years, the utility board has not rejected any of the company's rate requests.
Opponents said they had hoped that election-year pressures would persuade the governor to at least delay a decision to get new estimates on the prudence of the proposal. But if that was a concern, Scott and his Republican colleagues did not seem to notice.
Putnam called the FPL plan "a significant expansion" of the state's nuclear program that will help to diversify the state's energy mix and have "great potential for our state."
Scott said he was happy that FPL "is going to work with local communities to figure out where those lines should be."
But opponents warned that the issue will resonate with voters. "He just antagonized half of Miami-Dade County," said Cindy Lerner, mayor of Pinecrest, after the vote.
South Miami Mayor Phillip Stoddard, who defeated a 10-year incumbent and was twice reelected on the platform of opposing the transmission lines, predicted it will hurt the governor's reelection bid in November.
"I think he gave Charlie Crist a win," he said. "I really thought he'd take it more seriously."
FPL is among the largest campaign contributors in Florida. Since 2010, FPL has contributed nearly $3 million to the campaigns of the governor, the Cabinet and the Republican Party of Florida. During the last 18 months, FPL has contributed $550,000 to Scott's campaign alone and more than $700,000 to the RPOF.
(c)2014 The Miami Herald