Regulators decided Tuesday that a $1.3 billion, natural gas-fired power plant --- proposed in rural Okeechobee County by Florida Power & Light --- is needed to meet the demands of the state's growing population.
The decision by the Florida Public Service Commission came after objections from a pair of environmental groups, the state Office of Public Counsel and the Florida Industrial Power Users Group. The Office of Public Counsel represents consumers in utility issues, while the Florida Industrial Power Users Group represents large electricity users.
Opponents questioned the need for the plant and argued it will hinder conservation efforts and slow the growth of renewable energy sources such as solar.
Commissioners agreed with a staff conclusion that the proposed 1,633-megawatt plant would increase FPL's already-heavy reliance on natural gas. But Julie Brown, who formally began a two-year term as chair of the commission Tuesday, said the plant is the "most cost effective option" to bring more power to the state.
"We know there is a need. We know that it's present. It will continue to grow," Brown said.
The plant is planned for 250 acres of a 2,842-acre site that FPL owns in northeast Okeechobee County.
FPL has said the plant will be more fuel efficient than other plants, which will save money for customers in fuel costs. The plant, expected to create about 600 construction jobs and some 30 to 40 full-time jobs once opened in mid-2019, must still get approval from Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Cabinet members, who act as a power-plant siting board.
However, Tuesday's approval was considered the largest remaining pre-construction hurdle.
Bradley Marshall, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, derided the commission's decision as "protecting FPL's bottom line."
"Today's decision shows that the Public Service Commission is once again failing to look out for consumers," Marshall said in a prepared statement. "This plant is unnecessary. The only reason FPL is building this new power plant is because the company gets a guaranteed profit if it builds a new plant."
FPL, which in recent years has increasingly moved to using natural gas to generate electricity, argued that the Okeechobee plant is part of a series of projects that have helped phase out older oil- and coal-fired plants.
As an example, a new Port Everglades plant is scheduled to begin operating later this year, and FPL has also opened new plants in recent years at Cape Canaveral and Riviera Beach.
FPL also contends construction of the Okeechobee facility won't impact customers' rates until after the facility is online, at which time costs will be partially offset by savings on fuel costs.
"The FPL Okeechobee Clean Energy Center represents another major milestone in our successful program of phasing out older power-generating units and investing in new, high-efficiency clean energy centers that reduce emissions and save our customers money on fuel costs," FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy said in a release.