When the wind blows hard in Florida, people take cover. But the wind doesn’t blow hard enough often enough to support wind farms. “There’s not a wind farm within a thousand miles of our office,” says Mike O’Sullivan, senior vice president of NextEra Energy Resources, an independent power producer that is part of the FPL Group, which is based in Juno Beach, Florida. That hasn’t prevented FPL from becoming America’s No. 1 producer of wind power.
“GE, Goldman Sachs, BP – all the guys you read about – they don’t have even a fraction of what we have invested in renewables, even though they run some pretty fancy ads,” O’Sullivan says.
Perhaps because it’s tucked away in south Florida, FPL doesn’t much attention. But the company, with 2008 revenues of more than $16 billion, about 39,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and more than 15,000 employees in 27 states and Canada, has become a leading generator of low-carbon energy. Notice I didn’t say renewable energy; about 28% of the FPL Group’s electricity generation comes from nuclear power, which is low-carbon, whether environmentalists like it or not. Among the top 50 electric power generators in the U.S., FPL ranks No. 8 (meaning it is among the cleanest) in terms of carbon emissions per megawatt hour of generation. Interestingly, those ranked higher (meaning they burn even fewer fossil fuels) include PG&E, Exelon, Entergy and Constellation, all of which own nukes.
In its 2009 sustainability report, released this month, FPL says it operates 6,400 megawatts of wind power at 65 locations in 16 states and Canada. The company is also bullish on solar, which it says is poised for growth, and on nuclear power. It says:
All told, FPL Group’s zero-emissions generation avoided 42.6 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2008. That’s the carbon equivalent of removing eight coal-fired power plants or preserving 269,000 acres of forest, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.
Put another way, if every utility in the nation were as clean as FPL Group, total U.S. CO2 emissions would be cut by 20 percent, equivalent to removing eight of every 10 vehicles from the road, according to the company.
Still, when we spoke by phone last week, O’Sullivan made no claims to be “green.” When NextEra, which as an independent power producer sells electricity to other utilities and intermediaries all over the country, decides whether to deploy capital on a new plant, make an acquisition or to use its money to pay down debt or pay dividends, the company aims to maximize its return on capital, plain and simple.
NextEra doesn’t make decisions “based on what we call brag-a-watts, doing it for the headlines or the press release,” he tells me. “The main driver is shareholder value.”
“Nuclear and wind drive a large chunk of the earnings,” says O’Sullivan, even though FPL Group generates more electricity by burning natural gas than from any other fuel. Besides NextEra, FPL Group also owns Florida Power & Light, a regulated utility that serves customers in Florida.
Wind is a good business because of federal and state subsidies, O’Sullivan says. About half of the cash flow during the 2o to 25 years life of a wind farm comes from the subsidies and tax breaks, with the other half coming from electricity sales. The business is “driven by public policy,” he says. On a standalone basis, wind could not compete with coal or natural gas which, of course, benefit from subsidies of their own, not the least of which is that they don’t, for now, have to pay for the environmental costs of emitting tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Of course, the climate-change legislation now making its way through Congress would put a price on the right to emit heat-trapping pollutants. FPL supports carbon controls as a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership.
In any event, NextEra has told Wall Street analysts that it will invest another $2 billion in wind in the next few years. Finding places to put wind farms won’t be a problem, according to O’Sullivan. While environmentalists have fought new wind farms in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, those are exceptions to the rule. “We aren’t having a land or siting problem in rural or middle America,” he says. “They love wind. It’s a cash crop.” NextEra is also pursuing solar projects in California and the southwest.
“It’s certainly feasible to generate a lot more of our electricity from renewables or nuclear,” O’Sullivan says.
The big problem for low-carbon energy projects remains cost. Wind, solar and new nuclear plants are “not going to be as inexpensive as fossil fuels,” he says. That’s not a coal company talking. It’s a wind guy.