Rosemary O’Hara sig

You’ve got to hand it to Florida Power & Light, the state’s most powerful company. It may be late in setting goals to eliminate carbon emissions, but its plan to reach “real zero” by 2045 sets a new high bar by which all other companies should be measured.

Remarkably, FPL plans to transition away from natural gas, which generates more than 70% of its power. (Nuclear and solar largely account for the rest.) To hold itself accountable, FPL and its parent company, NextEra Energy, published solid five-year benchmarks, not squishy “net zero” promises about planting trees or buying off-setting credits while continuing to emit.

“We're not late, we’re first,” chief executive Eric Silagy said in an interview. “This is about how do we actually get to real zero. Nobody in any sector has taken this pledge.”

By 2030, FPL promises 52% of its energy production will be carbon-free, up from 24% today (because of nuclear and solar.) In other words, FPL will more than double its zero-carbon power generation in eight years. By 2045, it says it will eliminate the accelerant that is causing our planet to warm and oceans to rise: carbon emissions.

FPL’s quickened march toward a carbon-free future is an extraordinary and welcomed commitment from a well-run company that generally does what it says it will do.

Because FPL powers more than half of Florida, it also means the homes and businesses of its 12 million customers can also go carbon-free — a goal long sought by cities, counties and citizens concerned about the state’s vulnerabilities to sea-level rise, extreme heat and drought, and stronger and more frequent storms.

To reach “real zero,” Silagy said FPL will eventually install “hundreds of millions” of solar panels that will cover about 1% of the state’s land mass.

In addition, its power plants will be retrofitted to run on “green hydrogen,” so named because unlike other industries, FPL will extract hydrogen from water using solar energy. The hydrogen will then be blended with the natural gas that now powers its plants, eventually taking over. Hydrogen’s byproduct is water vapor, not carbon.

For reliability purposes only, about 20% of its power-generating units will be able to burn “renewable natural gas” — biofuels like cow manure, for example — which are considered carbon neutral because such gases would naturally be released anyway, a company spokesman said. It also plans to keep its nuclear units at Turkey Point and St. Lucie in the mix to meet our state’s ever-growing energy demands.

Eventually, Silagy said he expects 80% of FPL’s energy mix to come from solar — a remarkable headline for the Sunshine State. Officially, the company lists its future mix this way: 83% solar, battery and green hydrogen; 16% nuclear and 1% renewable natural gas.

The pivot is a game changer for FPL, on par with its early-2000s decision to shutter coal plants, get off foreign oil and double down on low-cost natural gas. The natural gas gamble paid off for many years, helping it reduce emissions while keeping customer bills among the nation’s lowest. But with today’s natural gas prices soaring, solar panel costs falling and batteries becoming more affordable and efficient, the economics have changed, Silagy said.

To pay for the transformation, customers will see an increase in the base rate, which pays for capital improvements and is where the regulated company makes most of its profit. But Silagy says customer bills will remain flat because the pass-through fuel charge — which totaled $5 billion last year — will disappear.

“We're going to do it in a manner that doesn't wreck our customers’ pocketbooks because if you don't do it that way … it won't be politically sustainable,” Silagy said. “Because you will find people who will go out and rail on it, and rile people up, and say, ‘You can't afford to do this.’”

FPL’s parent company, which is based in Palm Beach County, envisions even bigger prospects ahead. It sees a $4 trillion business opportunity in helping other investor-owned utilities, municipalities and electric co-ops decarbonize, too.

It also plans to deliver clean-energy solutions to other business sectors, particularly transportation, technology, industrial and agricultural. It says its approach could “create up to 150,000 jobs between now and 2045, and add $15 billion in annual GDP impact in Florida.”

It sends a powerful message for NextEra, which does business in 49 states, and FPL, the nation’s largest electric company, to trumpet the business opportunities in going green. For FPL is a conservative powerhouse, politically and economically. And up until now, it has not been a leader in addressing the existential issue of our times: climate change.

As our interview came to a close, I asked Silagy the overarching question: Is it pretty accepted now in your industry and in the people you interact with that climate change is real and that we have to reduce carbon emissions to keep the problem from getting worse?

“Yes,” he said. “Generally speaking, I'd say absolutely. … We’ve all seen the storms are more frequent and they're stronger.

“Understand, it's also smart business. Florida is a prime example of that. We are the tourist capital of the world, by far. … If you've worked all year long to take that family vacation, which most people have to do to save, and you penetrate a smog bank flying into Sarasota, Tampa or Orlando or Miami — or you go on the beach and get tar on your feet — you're not going to come back to Florida, right?

“So I argue to people if you can't get comfortable with it because of the environment, get comfortable with it because it's just darn good business. Whatever the reason is, we can't just say no.

“And we should never be satisfied because there will always be more to do. We should do the power sector. We need to do the transportation sector. We need to do the agriculture sector. We shouldn't be satisfied until we get to zero across the board.

“But we have to do it where people can afford to do it, otherwise it won’t be politically sustainable.”

Rosemary O’Hara, a Dunedin resident, is editor of The Invading Sea, a collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate. She previously was editorial page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.