TECO drags its feet as Tampa yearns for energy conservation

If Tampa is falling behind in its move toward energy efficiency, maybe it's because TECO is dragging its heels.

click to enlarge A TALE OF TWO CITIES: When local environmentalists talk about who's greener, Tampa often comes up short in comparison with its neighbors. St. Petersburg. - Courtesy Chrisand/orkevin Via Flickr
Courtesy Chrisand/orkevin Via Flickr
A TALE OF TWO CITIES: When local environmentalists talk about who's greener, Tampa often comes up short in comparison with its neighbors. St. Petersburg.

Whether it's fair or not, when local environmentalists talk about who's greener, Tampa often comes up short in comparison with its neighbors. St. Petersburg, for instance, was named the state's first "green city" in 2007 by the Florida Green Building Coalition, who cited its preservation of open spaces, water conservation programs and more.

The comparison even rears its competitive head when Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is in the room. Last month, during a meeting she convened with an energy conservation task force, a member mentioned that St. Pete was building a LEED-certified fire station. That prompted Mayor Iorio to harrumph a bit: Tampa's new fire station would be LEED-certified, too, she pointed out, as would all future city buildings of over 5,000 square feet (LEED-certified is an accreditation given by the U.S. Green Building Council, and stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Later, at an April 1 City Council meeting, a discussion with city Administrator of Public Works Steve Dagnault left some doubt as to whether the city would go for the Gold LEED certification or save money and settle for a Silver.

But these comparisons are minor considerations when it comes to what some consider Tampa's biggest hurdle in going greener: the Tampa Electric Company, or TECO.

Mayor Iorio's energy conservation task force owes its existence to a bitter dispute over TECO. In 2008, as the city was negotiating a new 25-year franchise agreement with the utility, activists excoriated what they viewed as an over-reliance on coal and natural gas, when there had been a surge in the country to support biofuels, wind and solar energy. Some citizens even suggested that Tampa go the route of dozens of other cities in Florida (such as Lakeland and Jacksonville) and run its own power company.

But that never happened. Instead, the mayor created the task force in early 2009, an 18-member group made up mostly of business officials plus a few members of the community, to work with the utility on energy conservation, renewable energy and climate change initiatives.

The group's first set of recommendations seemed benign enough - hardly anything to alarm TECO shareholders. They included nine "actions to be pursued," including a marketing strategy to encourage more landlords and property owners to make energy-efficient improvements using TECO and city monies, and new financing options for property owners to encourage energy efficient upgrades.

Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena was unhappy when a majority of her colleagues went along with the Iorio administration and re-upped for the 25-year TECO deal, and she was further nonplussed upon reviewing the recommendations, calling them "very modest."

"I wished that it would have been more time-specific, more accountable in terms of how many customers impacted, and the savings we hoped to achieve," she said recently.

But now TECO doesn't seem to be in any hurry to act on those.

During the task force meeting last month, Mayor Iorio displayed some impatience at the utility's slow pace.

"Can we get TECO to present a formal response?" she asked with a slight edge in her voice as she stared at the list of recommendations, as yet not acted upon. After being informed that she would get something in writing, she glanced toward Thom Snelling, the city's Deputy Director for Growth Management and Development Service but better known as the city's "green officer."

"I think we need to close the full loop from TECO," she said. "I think we need to have commentary from the utility."

Weeks later, TECO has yet to make that formal response, though a spokesman says it will be coming shortly.

Despite its failure so far to respond to the task force, on March 31 the company did file for approval from the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) to expand its number of energy-efficient programs for customers, including customer rebates of up to $1,000 for installation of new solar hot water heating systems, and provision of solar water heating systems for new buildings housing nonprofit groups. The company also announced a series of features and enhancements for residential and business customers.

Task force member Ed Turanchik is outspoken in praising TECO for those recent rate filings, calling them "impressive improvements."

But Phil Compton of the Sierra Club is not impressed. He says that the utility has never really shown any commitment to generating energy through alternative sources, and he was likewise unimpressed by the recommendations produced by the task force. But he takes some comfort that TECO may have to change its reliance on coal, now that the Environmental Protection Agency has announced a new regulation that critics say could mean the end for surface mining, or "mountain top removal." The energy company has used that controversial procedure to mine coal in Kentucky for over a decade now.

If there's dispute over TECO's dedication to energy efficiency, there's consensus at least one issue: The company needs to do a better job of communicating and marketing to let residents know how to save energy.

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