Research focused on renewable energy
This op-ed appeared in the Miami Herald on Sun., June 22, 2008.
(It was posted on their Web site June 23.)
By: Win Phillips
Win Phillips is the vice president for research at the University of Florida.
State policymakers at this week’s 2008 Climate Change summit in Miami will focus on renewable energy in Florida. The meeting is important and timely.
Gas, utility and food prices are spiking by the day. Concerns about global warming tied to the burning of fossil fuels continue to mount. As a result, the need for new, clean and domestic energy sources has become obvious to all Americans.
Gov. Charlie Crist’s announcement last week that he would support offshore oil exploration off Florida’s coast has grabbed the headlines. But whether drilling occurs or not, all evidence suggests the nation will still face shrinking energy supplies, skyrocketing transportation costs and the prospect of shortages. Many are looking to the federal government for solutions, but states and cities must do what they can to exploit renewable energies on their own turf.
This is especially true in Florida, which uses more energy than most other states — almost all of it produced using fossil fuels imported from elsewhere. In the short term, this makes us vulnerable to price swings or worse — for example, blackouts or gas lines. In the long term, our dependence on fossil fuels means we contribute to our own vulnerability to one of the best understood results of global warming: sea level rise.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, Florida has the climate, the political readiness and the expertise at its universities to make a turnaround.
Per capita, Florida ranks 13th in coal, eighth in natural gas and third in petroleum consumption nationwide, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Coal and natural gas powered plants each generate a third of Florida’s electricity. Both arrive almost exclusively from out of state.
Florida’s tradition of opposing offshore drilling appears headed for a major test. But for now, our only big in-state producer is the nuclear industry, which accounts for 15 percent of Florida’s electricity. To their credit, the state’s utilities have serious plans to expand or build new plants, boosting our energy independence.
As with nuclear energy, renewable energy offers hope of clean power that doesn’t contribute to global warming. But Florida is way behind.
The EIA ranks the state 15th in renewable energy generation. By contrast, California, New York and Texas rank 2nd, 4th and 8th, respectively. While Florida does not have ideal conditions for wind power, our climate and year-round growing season suggest abundant solar and biomass resources. Yet California, not Florida, leads the nation in both.
Conserve energy, too
How Florida wound up in this spot is a question worth asking. But a much more important issue for those at next week’s meeting is what to do now.
The basic approach should be to focus not only on nurturing new renewable energy sources, but also on conserving the energy we already use — tapping expertise at the state’s universities to make progress in both areas.
Academics are often accused of working with their sights set too far in the future. But our researchers can contribute much to solving the state’s energy problems today. More than 250 faculty members are conducting energy-related research at Florida’s public universities.
At our four largest research schools — the Universities of Florida, Central Florida, South Florida and Florida State University — faculty have received more than $188 million in grants for energy research over the past three years alone.
Importantly, Florida’s academic research is focused both on energy generation and energy conservation, making it highly relevant to the state’s future path. Florida policymakers seem to appreciate this. Lawmakers this year approved $50 million to create the UF-led Florida Energy Systems Consortium, which will bring together energy researchers at our universities for research, development and workforce training.
Providing adequate, clean energy to more than 18 million Floridians is a tough challenge. But Florida university research has been the heart of solutions to other major problems, from a front-line cancer drug developed at FSU to healthier and hardier crops pioneered at UF. We stand ready to make similar contributions to a brighter energy future for Florida.