Pickpocketing the Public: Part 1

The "renewable energy" program you're chipping in for spews the same old pollutants

Gotten that call yet from FPL? Or the letter in the mail? They're asking you to do your part and tack on an extra $9.75 to your monthly payment. It's for "renewable energy." Who in good conscience could say no?

The pitch is this: Florida Power & Light promises that its Sunshine Energy Program will use your contribution to build solar collectors stashed on the roofs of South Florida buildings as well as to buy "green" renewable energy from other companies. There may be a brighter tomorrow after all, right?

Turns out the deal isn't as green as promised. Most of the money sent in by well-intentioned FPL customers will not go toward buying energy produced from traditional "clean" sources like solar or wind but from the burning of industrial wood waste and landfill methane. Experts differ on whether waste-to-energy operations are good for the environment, but environmentalists claim such operations have upped the mercury levels in the Everglades and may contribute to air pollution.

What's more, FPL has hired Texas-based Green Mountain Energy Co. to administer the program. Green Mountain has a long history of running afoul of environmentalists. Critics say the company claims to produce renewable fuel but then provides it from less-than-clean sources. Green Mountain is nothing but a front for big oil, contends Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network in Philadelphia. "What Green Mountain is marketing as green energy," he says, "is actually a lot of the stuff that the environmental community has been fighting for years."

FPL's Sunshine Energy Program got its start last year with a telemarketing and mass-mail campaign. By now, the program has lined up more than 12,000 customers who have agreed to chip in the extra $9.75 a month -- in total, more than $1.4 million a year. Jack Rose, FPL's program manager of Sunshine Energy, says the donors envision a greener future with the help of renewable energy. "Renewables are a good thing," Rose says. "They make sense for the environment."

Sure, but how much of the environment? FPL says that its first solar collector, for which the company is still looking for a rooftop location, will eventually produce 150 kilowatts of juice -- enough to power about 20 homes. Environmentalists figuratively roll their eyes. "Isn't that a crock?" says Rosa Durando, with Audubon Society of the Everglades. "They're relying on the good nature of stupid people."

In its defense, FPL says the cost of generating power from alternative sources is expensive. Solar power costs 60 cents per kilowatt hour, as opposed to about 7 cents an hour from fossil fuels, FPL spokeswoman Pat Davis says. The utility insists money isn't the issue. "We are not after a profit on this," Davis says.

But FPL isn't buying energy that, by everyone's definition, is clean. According to an FPL spokesperson, the Sunshine Energy Program gets 27 percent of its power from wind, 30 percent from the burning of methane produced by decomposing landfills, and 42 percent from incinerators that burn wood waste -- with only wind being a legitimately clean source of power.

Environmentalists have long questioned whether the burning of landfill methane could put harmful chemicals into the air. And the burning of wood waste has been credited with adding to air pollution. Waste incinerators are Florida's largest mercury polluters and have been blamed for spreading the deadly chemical into the Everglades, the source of drinking water both for endangered species and millions of people.

Environmentalists say there's reason to raise questions about FPL's partnership with Green Mountain, a company that operates in nine states from Oregon to New York. The company has mostly set up shop where deregulation of the power industry allows it to compete with local companies. It's owned by oil magnate Sam Wyly of Texas and gas giant BP Amoco, which has shoveled out more than $100 million to expand.

In recent years, there has been a series of set-tos with environmentalist and public interest groups. In Pennsylvania, Green Mountain took heat from a coalition that claimed the company did little to supply renewable fuels like solar, wind, and hydroelectric. Thirteen national and local environmental groups banded together to boycott the company. Ewall, who's been fighting Green Mountain for six years, says, "Green Mountain is not the company it claims to be."

The negative publicity prompted an investigation into the company's advertising by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office. The company acknowledged it had made a mistake when, in pitching its own cost-saving virtues, it advertised its rates without figuring in taxes, comparing them with competitors' rates, taxes and all. The company admitted no wrongdoing, but it paid a $100,000 fine to settle the investigation.

In September 2000, Green Mountain angered environmentalists by relocating its corporate offices to a building that sat above an environmentally sensitive aquifer in Austin, Texas. The company paid $20,000 in restitution for the blunder.

Ralph Nader's watchdog group, Public Citizen, investigated Green Mountain's claims that it was supplying clean power to California, determining that some actually came from coal plants in Oregon. The 1999 report also said that Green Mountain's "purchasing" of clean power may do little if anything to improve the environment because the company buys power that's already being fed into the national power grid, having no effect on the balance of renewable energy.

Green Mountain's deal with FPL allows the company to buy renewable energy from outside the state if it can't find enough within Florida. The result may be that the power it buys will never come close to Florida consumers. Rose responds that the program isn't about getting the power directly to FPL customers but simply increasing the amount of renewable energy put onto the national grid.

When asked about Green Mountain's checkered past, FPL's Davis says her company reviewed the records of other renewable-energy providers and determined that Green Mountain was the best at it. "Green Mountain has the experience," Davis says, "to do what we need them to do."

Adding to the widespread skepticism about the program, though, has been the FPL's secrecy. The power company refuses to reveal the sources of the power it provides or the methods used in converting wood waste to energy, suggesting that the information is proprietary.

"Make no mistake, there's stuff put out in everything you burn," says Peter Frederick, a professor at University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. Smokestack cleaners can remove many pollutants from wood pulp, he says, but, because of FPL's secrecy, it's unclear whether plants that supply FPL use cleaners.

Rose, the program's manager, would acknowledge only that the wood waste plant is located in Georgia. "What I cansay is that Green Mountain has done an admirable job."

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