Regional governments make plans to transition to sustainable energy alternatives

The changes are not obvious, but every major government entity in the Tampa Bay Region has a plan to move away from fossil fuels to embrace alternative energy sources and reduce their carbon footprints.

The catch for some of the changes is that they are not mandatory, but completely voluntary.

“The big push is to figure out where we can collaborate and convene on issues to move the needle through collective action,” says Cara Serra, comprehensive resiliency planner for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. She heads up drafting of the Regional Resiliency Action Plan.

One of the priorities right now, she says, is to gather a working group of local government staff members, professional architects, engineers, and design professionals to look at how governments can make their construction more resilient, more sustainable and more energy efficient.

“Another way of working collectively is action to define reduction goals for greenhouse gas emissions for our local government operations,” Serra says. “Some regionwide studies to quantify and visualize emissions and partner with our member governments to look at vulnerable communities because of high emissions exposure.”

The planning council also plans to work with the University of South Florida to develop an electric vehicle master plan, to identify shared facilities where member governments could partner to make infrastructure available across county lines.

Every local government is working to find the biggest bang for its buck with it comes to reducing its carbon footprint through responsible energy use.

“Hillsborough County has a long history of being a leader in the area as far as pushing energy efficiency and implementing emerging technologies,” says Eric Pyzowski, with Hillsborough County Facilities Management and Real Estate Services

“We started off with solar projects, the first installation going in in 2010,” he says. “That was the beginning of solar as a viable technology to reduce any kind of electricity use. Since then, we have extended the program immensely.”

Once it completes its current three-year project, Hillsborough County will have 27 rooftop solar arrays on county-owned properties, including libraries and some parks. All the electricity produced by the arrays is being used onsite.

“One of our solar heavy sites would be our fleet building on Falkenberg Road,” Pyzowski says. “It offsets about 70% of grid-purchased electricity.”

Hillsborough County is also working to install LED lighting at all of its sports fields and in its buildings, with solar backup in the event of power outages.

The newest solar array will be installed at the Valrico Water Treatment Plant on Dover Road in the eastern part of the county. “Typically, water treatment plants are some of your highest (electricity) users,” Pyzowski says.

“We are striving for net zero, he says. “There are a handful of categories from overall energy uses to transportation, housing and development, clean water, and solid waste.” The county is developing a sustainability plan to pave the way to reach net zero, he says.

Setting aspirational goals

In Pinellas County, the board of county commissioners unanimously passed a resolution late in 2021 to transition to alternative and clean energy, part of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 initiatives. 

“We decided to join that effort and came up with some aspirational goals to have portions of our energy consumption be clean by 2030, 2040, and 2050,” says Hank Hodde, sustainability and resilience coordinator for the county.

“We want to be 50% offset by 2030 and 100% by 2040 and that is county operations and county energy consumption,” Hodde says. “We also have a countywide goal to consume clean energy by 2050. That is our countywide community aspirational goal. It is more of encouraging the vision, so everyone knows we are interested in clean energy and getting the community on board.”

His first action as sustainability and resiliency coordinator was to sign on to Duke Energy’s Clean Energy Connections program. Starting next year, he says, Pinellas County will begin offsetting a portion of its energy consumption with solar that Duke is building.

“They are building 10 solar fields around the state and allocating different percentages to large industrial customers, to residents, and for local governments,” Hodde said.

By 2024, he says, 40% of the county’s energy use will be offset by solar. “That is something that gave us a lot of confidence that it’s an action that is happening and we think it will lead to even more solar in the decades to come.”

Pinellas County will already be at 50% solar offset by 2024 “and we have six years to figure out that other 10%,” Hodde says. “There are three schools of thought on the approach: lower your energy use; install clean and alternative energy; and buy clean and alternative energy.

“Moving forward, we are going to have some actions outlined in the Sustainability and Resiliency Action plan we hope will be adopted later this year. We already have an energy and water conservation program coordinator already on staff. Karim Molina-Oyola is helping us with figuring out our energy consumption and analyzing it. Will be able to help with conservation efforts.”

Addressing energy needs

The City of Tampa has an action plan to mitigate climate change with building code changes already in the works,” says Whit Remer, the city’s sustainability and resiliency officer. “On the mitigation side, which is reducing our greenhouse gases, which involves first and foremost energy efficiency. When you talk about energy, TECO (Tampa Electric Co.) just announced doing its sixth or seventh solar field in south county. Having a grid powered by renewable energy when the demand is high” is a good way to address energy needs.

What the Hillsborough County does not want to do is power houses that are not energy efficient with drafty windows or roofs with no insulation, Remer says. So, the City of Tampa is looking at how it can help homeowners make their houses more energy efficient.

The city is working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which can at least help with things such as free home energy audits, Remer says. “You might have someone in an older house with an AC unit that is 15 years old. Their energy bill could be $200 or $300 a month in the hot months. When you combine that with filling their car with gas, that could be 30-40% of their monthly income.”

Making a house energy efficient can cut those bills in half, he says.

The city is also busy changing out lightbulbs in all city buildings, improving pumps to move water and treat wastewater, and building the Hanna Avenue City Center, the largest stationary construction project the city has undertaken in 40 years. It will consolidate 12 city departments and all three buildings will be LEED certified and powered by solar. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green building rating.

Right now, government agencies are required to buy energy from utilities such as Duke and TECO, Remer says. The state of Florida does not allow neighbors to come together to create community-based solar projects, he says. “That is a real hurdle in reaching our renewable energy goals” and something the city hopes will change.
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Read more articles by Yvette C. Hammett.

Yvette C. Hammett, a native Floridian and a graduate of the University of Florida, has spent much of her career as a professional journalist covering business, the environment, and local features throughout the Tampa Bay Area. She is an avid camper and outdoors person who has also been involved in local events for foster children and the elderly.