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Coal is the Challenge as Orlando, Florida Pushes Toward 100% Carbon-Free Target

Orlando Sentinel/YouTube

From floating solar panels atop thousands of storm runoff ponds, to LED lamps on city streetlights, to algae ponds to capture and sequester carbon, the city of Orlando, Florida is pushing toward a 2050 deadline to produce all its electricity from carbon-free sources—while acknowledging that setting ambitious targets is a lot easier than meeting them.

“Cities, we’re having to take the lead,” said sustainability director Chris Castro. “You would have expected the federal government to be taking the lead, but the federal government seems to be backing away every day from the commitments they’ve made.”

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At the same time, “as a community, we’ve been really good about creating visions,” acknowledged Mayor Buddy Dwyer. “I think we all recognize that we need technology advancements to get to 100%.”

“It gets more challenging as you get closer and closer to 100%,” agreed Vote Solar Director of Grid Integration Ed Smeloff. “The future to get to 100% is probably more diverse than we’re seeing right now.”

While Orlando was in line for recognition at this week’s Global Climate Action Summit in California, “setting goals is proving far easier than achieving them,” the New York Times reports. “And environmental groups like the Sierra Club are agitating to make sure the commitments are more than just talk.

So far, the Times writes, the municipally-owned Orlando Utilities Commission is counting on solar to produce 8% of its electricity by 2020. It’s installed 20 megawatts of community solar panels, and homeowners have received a net metering incentive to install another 10. The floating panels would add more capacity—but not enough to get the city to 100%.

“Like other cities, Orlando struggles with its reliance on one of the dirtiest fuels for producing electricity—coal,” the Times states. “Los Angeles, which also generates municipal power, has proposed to replace remaining coal plants with natural gas facilities, which produce half as much carbon as coal units. In Orlando’s case, about 47% of the energy mix comes from two coal units at the Curtis H. Stanton Energy Center, home also to two generators powered by natural gas.”

City officials are concerned that ratepayers will be hit with added costs if the coal plants are retired early. And greater reliance on variable electricity sources like solar and wind will hinge on continuing cost reductions for battery storage.

But the bigger issue is that power plants only produce about one-third of the city’s emissions, with transportation and industry accounting for about half.

In the electricity industry’s calculus, 100% carbon-free may not mean 100% zero emissions,” the Times notes. “Sometimes, as Orlando talks of doing, it means buying credits produced from carbon-free power plants elsewhere—a benefit used to encourage development of clean power sources—to offset dirty emissions.”

Orlando is also joining cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles to buy carbon-free products like electric vehicles and batteries in bulk. “We’re going to be looking for new business models,” said Utilities Commission CEO and General Manager Clint Bullock. “The biggest risk for us is not changing.”