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Powering the Future of Renewable Energy in Northwest Florida

2020 was a year marked by extreme weather events--- from a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season with over 30 named storms by the end of November to wildfires ravaging Australia, Brazil and California and worldwide droughts and superstorms that severely impacted agricultural output and food scarcity. Extreme weather events and rising global temperatures are direct byproducts of rising greenhouse gas emissions and the widespread impacts of climate change. Current levels of greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase global temperatures by 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Both national and local governments are gearing up to create legislative policies committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and pledging renewable energy goals.


At President Biden’s Earth Day Climate Summit on April 22, Biden pledged that the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 from its 2005 levels, as well as increase funds to vulnerable countries to fight climate change. Locally, students at the University of West Florida (UWF) are leading a push for 100 percent renewable energy on campus, while local organizers and community members of Northwest Florida have rallied for the City of Pensacola to commit to a renewable energy goal.


Jaylen McGee, the 100 Percent Renewable Coordinator at UWF, first became interested in environmental conservation and advocacy work when he completed an internship with Environment Florida and worked on a project called Student Voices to gauge the community perception of a renewable energy campaign. McGee is a senior marine biology major at UWF, and he is spearheading the renewable energy resolution. The resolution passed a unanimous vote from the Student Government Association and calls for the university to generate 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2050, with all electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030.


“If the resolution passes with a final vote from the President’s Office and Board of Trustees, UWF would be the first school in the State of Florida to officially pass a 100 percent renewable goal, which would set an example for both the state and the entire country” McGee explained. “Our campus is situated right in the middle of pristine wildlife and the Edward Ball Nature Preserve with the Thompson Bayou running through it and Longleaf Pines surrounding all of the buildings. This resolution would create a big change in the overall hwealth of the campus. Beyond human health, it would positively impact the health of the environment and biodiversity by eliminating carbon pollution in the air.”


As McGee explained, the resolution created a domino effect in the Florida University system with both the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida passing similar resolutions through their Student Government Associations. The transition to use of renewable energy sources would include reducing energy consumption in campus buildings, the installation of solar panels and transitioning campus shuttles and vans to electric vehicles.


“From research I’ve done, the return on investment can occur between 5 and 10 years, but it always depends on the scope of the final project. We’ve seen this with the University of California that installed a solar farm and several battery storage units to reach carbon neutrality by 2025,” McGee said. “I think this resolution is crucial to the fight for a better, cleaner, greener world. The next step after this resolution is focusing our actions on the City of Pensacola and advocating for cleaner energy beyond the university campus.”


Christian Wagley, coastal organizer for Healthy Gulf, has been working on water quality, energy, coastal resilience and environmental advocacy for the last 20 years. He has worked in local government, in the private sector and now within the non-profit Healthy Gulf, which was initially established in 1995 as the Gulf Restoration Network. Wagley also served as a community advocate for the formation of the Pensacola Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Task Force, which issued a report to the City Council in November 2018 with a series of recommendations for the City to mitigate the impacts of climate change and better protect the community. On April 22, 2021, Pensacola City Council passed a unanimous vote to approve transitioning to 30 percent renewable energy for city operations by the year 2030.


“Climate change is absolutely the biggest challenge of our time, and Pensacola is very much at risk due to our coastal location. There is a study that came out recently from Harvard University which found that air pollution from fossil fuels alone prematurely kills one in five people worldwide, including 300,000 Americans,” Wagley said. “The burning of coal, oil and natural gas has tremendous impacts on our communities, and polling data shows that Americans desperately want clean energy. Local governments have a clear need to respond to citizens and provide this clean energy.”


Eleven cities in the State of Florida have established renewable energy commitments for 100 percent renewable energy sources with targets of net zero emissions by 2040. Pensacola’s 30 percent renewable energy commitment was initially recommended by the Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Task Force and called for 30 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. As Wagley explained, this initial commitment will help create local jobs in solar installation, dramatically reduce air and water pollution and help mitigate the shockwaves of climate change felt by Northwest Florida residents including flooding from sea level rise, stronger hurricanes, increased rainfall and hotter temperatures.


“The best way to mitigate climate change is to use less energy and transition to renewable energy, but there are a few challenges for that transition. First, is the upfront funding to transition and install new infrastructure, which takes some time to draw a return. Another one is that the City owns a natural gas utility, which is a polluting fossil fuel that has to be phased out. The biggest challenge, however, is who controls the energy. There are independent companies all over Pensacola that can install solar panels for you; however, creative financing models that are available in other states are basically forbidden in Florida to protect local utilities from competition,” Wagley said.


Currently, the State of Florida prevents third- party solar power purchase agreements, which allow independent solar companies to install solar on a home with little or no upfront cost to the homeowner, who can then buy electricity from the developer, usually at lower rates than utility rates, over a fixed time from 10 to 30 years. At the end of the time period, homeowners have the option to sign another agreement, end the agreement and remove the solar panels or purchase the solar system from the developer. This third-party ban prevents homeowners from investing in clean energy and holds the state behind in the rapidly growing solar market. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Sunshine State ranks fifth in the nation’s solar industry.


Florida Senate Bill 198, filed in December 2020 was attempting to challenge this third- party ban by seeking to authorize schools and public educational customers to enter into a contract for the installation, maintenance or operation of a renewable energy source device on any property owned or controlled by the public educational customer. Unfortunately, this bill was quickly withdrawn from all referred committees in January 2021.


While renewable energy commitments help bring universities, local governments and cities up to speed with climate mitigation occurring worldwide, legislative restrictions against third-party solar power purchase agreements greatly impact the speed at which transitioning to renewable energy can occur.


“I’m so excited to see action on climate change at all levels, from the Pensacola City Council and UWF all the way to the President of the United States,” Wagley said. “Moving to renewable energy will bring us cleaner air and water, better public health and a more resilient community. From energy conservation and more walkable/bikeable communities, to solar panels on buildings and electric cars— there’s a better and cleaner future ahead.”


These greenhouse gas reductions and clean energy commitments could not occur at a more pressing time. January 2021 marked the seventh highest global land and ocean surface temperature in the 142-year record at 1.44° F (0.80° C) above the 20th-century average of 53.6° F (12.0° C), according to National Centers for Environmental Information. As Northwest Florida prepares to transition to clean energy, it will propel the region ahead in the fight against climate change.


To get involved with local environmental advocacy work, or find out more, check out healthygulf.org. For any UWF alumni or current students interested in getting involved in the renewable energy resolution on campus, please contact Jaylen McGee at jdm133@students.uwf.edu.

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