(TNS) –– NEW SMYRNA BEACH — When New Smyrnans press the buttons on their coffee pots each morning, they may not consider from where its tiny light got its spark.
But Alan Douglas knows. He mans the power relay station at the New Smyrna Beach Utilities Commission's Electric Operations Center. As he slides across the room in a rolling chair, his fingers click a keyboard to buy a few more million megawatts of power from Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy.
Zap. Let there be light.
Right now, those megawatts of power are generated by several different resources — natural gas, coal and oil, as well as nuclear power.
The Sierra Club wants to break the dependency on fossil fuels, and while some leaders are more optimistic than others, cities across the nation have promised to back the club's initiative to wean their cities entirely off nonrenewable energy sources by the year 2050.
Locally so far, 13 cities have already announced support for the Sierra Club's Mayors for 100% Clean Energy campaign, formed to work toward eventually replacing energy sources that rely on fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or hydro power. Larger area municipalities like DeLand and Palm Coast have signed on, with two more joining the ranks last week. Several weeks ago New Smyrna, which has a publicly owned utility, signed on.
Now, the question remains: How will they do it?
Florida obtains only a small portion of its energy from renewable resources, according to an analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Most of the state's renewable electricity generation comes from biomass — wood and agricultural products, solid waste, landfill gas, biogas, and alcohol fuels — with the remainder coming from several solar energy facilities scattered around Florida and from two hydroelectricity generators in the state's northern Panhandle, the analysis states.
"We can do better," said Phil Compton, senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club's FL Healthy Air & Ready for 100 Campaign. He pointed to several cities that have made ambitious commitments and a few others that have succeeded.
A Sierra Club report highlights St. Petersburg as one of 10 U.S. cities that are implementing plans to go green. The City Council voted in 2016 to dedicate $250,000 from the BP oil spill settlement to develop a plan charting a course to transition to 100-percent renewable energy. The west coast city also directed settlement funds to expand the Solar United Neighbors of Florida and create a solar financing loan program to help low-income residents invest in energy efficiency measures and rooftop solar, according to the report.
While St. Pete hasn't set a target date, Compton said the plan itself is a start and both Sarasota and Orlando have made recent strides as well. Meanwhile, Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Greensburg, Kansas; Rock Port, Missouri and Kodiak Island, Alaska, are examples of how it can work, Compton said.
Aspen now is powered by approximately 50-percent wind, 45-percent hydropower, with the remaining 5 percent from solar and landfill gas. But Aspen, which has a permanent resident population of roughly 6,700 — a far cry from New Smyrna Beach's 26,000 — got a bit of a head start, having begun in 2005. Also, Aspen has used hydropower since the 19th century, when the city was the first west of the Mississippi to tap the power of water to power the electrified street lamps. Two dams built in the 1980s keep the energy flowing.
Georgetown, Texas, however, has a population of 64,000, and like New Smyrna, Georgetown has a municipal utility. In 2014, citing cost savings for residents, the utility made a deal to buy 144 megawatts of wind power from the Spinning Spur 3 wind farm in West Texas over the next two decades. Then, making national headlines in 2015, the utility made a deal with 25-year deal with SunEdison to buy 150 megawatts from solar plants to be constructed in West Texas.
"Each community needs to come up with its own plan," Compton said.
Efforts to advance clean energy are in various stages in Volusia County, highlighted by the Green Volusia Program and initiatives to power government offices with renewables.
"South Daytona is a bit more progressive than some of the other towns," said Kristine Cunningham, vice president of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club and Volusia-Flagler chapter group chair. "They were one of the first to get solar in their parks and they're setting up chargers."
But renewable energy isn't just about solar, said Cunningham, noting how some fear the cost of solar is too prohibitive and worry initiatives like this campaign might make that spending mandatory. "That's not really what this drive is all about," she said. "First and foremost is energy efficiency."
For instance, Cunningham said, Daytona Beach — the first Volusia-Flagler city to sign the pledge — might focus on making its older buildings more energy-efficient.
DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar said cities need to make sure they leave resources for their children and grandchildren.
DeLand has become an LEED-certified city and has installed several electric car charging stations, the mayor said. While those efforts are part of the city's strategic plan, he said they've been largely piecemeal, so he's proud of the recent commitment his colleagues on the City Commission made. He said he's been in talks with the city manager about researching what it might take to power the fire, police and government offices with solar power, but cautions it's just an idea right now.
And city spokesperson Chris Graham announced the launch of a phone app called Recycle Coach, which he said gives people up-to-date info on what can be recycled and where it needs to go, something Port Orange also recently adopted.
"You type in AA battery, it'll tell you where to take it," Graham said of the program. "It'll teach people to be better recyclers, to be better stewards of our environment."
New Smyrna Beach Mayor Jim Hathaway said he was inspired to take part in the initiative when he learned of a solar co-op the Volusia County League of Women Voters was working to promote back in August — Solar United Neighbors of Florida, which organizes group solar installations.
Hathaway says the 100-percent goal is ambitious, but thinks it is still doable, so long as the cost of renewable energy slides down.
"If you can get the price down, that's key," Hathaway said. "If it's affordable and it saves me money in the long haul, if I can maybe get a tax writeoff for a portion of it, if you can amortize it over a period of years, then it makes sense."
In New Smyrna, the city commission doesn't run the city's power company. That's the job of the Utilities Commission.
Back at the relay station in his rolling-chair perch, the power Douglas buys from the electrical grid is a little less than 70-percent natural gas, with coal and nuclear generating less than half that amount, according to federal energy data.
"Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it still pollutes," said Tim Beyrle, the Utilities Commission's director of systems operations. And while nuclear power is clean, it has its own risks.
Asked what the commission is doing to advance clean energy options today, Beyrle said there has been some talk of a solar farm, but only talk so far, and storage is an issue, he said. Until battery technology catches up, a solar farm would have to be massive to handle the city's power, he said.
Massive farms are what FPL is working on, including one in New Smyrna's backyard.
Just west of New Smyrna Beach off State Road 44, FPL is expected to break ground on a solar farm — one of more than a dozen FPL plans to build over a span of four years. The Pioneer Trail Solar Energy Center would be built on the former Kirkland Sod Farm, south of the highway, and is expected to include about 300,000 photovoltaic panels, producing up to 74.5 megawatts of electricity a year. The company has plans for eight more by 2019, but even with all those farms, FPL's solar goal accounts for 4 percent of its energy portfolio by 2023.
Beyrle said the biggest issue with renewables is the storage.
"The batteries, because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow," Beyrle said. That's the main way people are doing it now, but the technology is not cost effective."
©2017 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.