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June 23, 2018

Tallahassee Trend

Both Sides Now - Energy Regulation in Florida

Regulation from the perspective of a businessperson, not a government insider

Amy Keller | 6/1/2010
Virginia Wetherell
Virginia Wetherell

Personal: Married to T.K. Wetherell, former president of Florida State University; three children, Kent, Blakely and Page; two grandchildren

Current Mission: “Trying to set the model for biomass production, biomass power.”

Experience: Director and co-founder, Florida Biomass Energy; president, Wetherell Consulting, (1998-present); secretary, Department of Environmental Protection (1991-98); deputy director, Florida Department of Natural Resources (1988-91); member of Florida House of Representatives (1982-88)
[Photo: Ryan Lee/FSU Photo Lab]

Virginia “Ginger” Wetherell was no stranger to controversy during her tenure as a legislator and then as head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection from 1991-98.

In the early 1990s, she oversaw the “very controversial” merger of the DEP with the Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of the environmental community really didn’t want it to happen because they didn’t want the focus from regulation to be diminished in any way. Natural resources people, some of them were afraid from the regulatory mentality that would come with us,” she says.

The rest of her tenure at DEP likewise was marked by attacks from both ends of the political spectrum. Business groups once criticized her because of a DEP proposal for her agency to take full control of submerged state lands from the governor and Cabinet. On a different occasion, a coalition of environmental groups once called on Gov. Lawton Chiles to fire her over the agency’s handling of wetlands and other issues.

Wetherell now experiences the workings of government from the other side —?as a player in Florida’s growing renewable energy industry. And again, her work finds her enmeshed in controversy.

For all its “green” appeal, the industry hasn’t been welcomed with open arms by the public or environmentalists. Last year, Wetherell was caught in the crosshairs when some Tallahassee landowners and a Leon County commissioner objected to a Georgia company’s plans to build a biomass electric plant on 21 acres owned by Florida State University. Opponents of the project said Wetherell’s work as a consultant to that company, Biomass Gas & Electric, posed a conflict of interest because of her marriage to then-FSU President T.K. Wetherell. A grand jury investigation found no wrongdoing. BG&E subsequently moved its biomass project to Port St. Joe.

Wetherell’s latest biomass venture — which she is spearheading with the help of Rick Jensen, a former senior vice president and director of development with BG&E — also has its critics.

Wetherell’s company, Florida Biomass Energy, plans to break ground on a 60-megawatt biomass-based energy facility in Manatee County. The $185-million project will run on waste wood and eventually non-food crops to produce “green” electricity for Progress Energy under a 20-year contract. “We have spent a good year in getting our permits. We have 90% of everything we need,” Wetherell says.

The project, she says, will create more than 150 construction jobs and 25 full-time jobs at the plant, which will be located on a 48-acre complex just south of Port Manatee. The agricultural component of the project — growing harvesting, processing and transporting the fuel crop to the facility — will generate more than 100 jobs and provide tax revenue in the $1-million-plus range for the county.

Glenn Compton, director of ManaSota-88, opposes the biomass plant.
Not everyone approves. Glenn Compton, head of the environmental group ManaSota-88, says he’s concerned about the amount of water the plant may use. Biomass technology works by burning wood waste to boil water into steam, which turns a turbine to produce electricity. Wetherell’s company estimates it will use 1.2 million gallons of water each day. “That’s an incredible amount of water for a biomass plant,” says Compton. Furthermore, biomass electricity generators have the potential to create a “significant amount” of air pollution — particularly from CO2 emissions, he says.

Other plans for biomass plants have run into similar objections over water usage and possible pollution. In March, Adage Power, a joint venture between North Carolina-based Duke Energy and a French engineering firm, pulled the plug on its plans to build a $250-million biomass plant in Gadsden County after a group of local residents objected. In Alachua County, meanwhile, the Suwannee/St. Johns Sierra Group is fighting plans by Gainesville Regional Utilities to build a 100-megawatt biomass power plant in Gainesville.

Wetherell says her experience as DEP chief has given her a “broad understanding” of the laws and issues surrounding power plants. She sees part of her new job as helping the public to understand the benefits of burning biomass to generate electricity. While the state will allow up to 250 tons per year of emissions for a plant the size of the one that Florida Biomass has proposed in Manatee County, for example, Wetherell says that her company has vowed to come in 70% lower than that, promising to release only 75 tons of emissions.

Another part of Wetherell’s new duties is navigating through the regulatory red tape — a process that she acknowledges looks different to her as a businessperson than it did as a regulator.

“We have a very regulated state, and what has happened is that we have created in my view — and I’m guilty because I was in the Legislature when a lot of his was happening — we have created an opportunity for people to challenge and appeal every permit, every comp plan amendment all along the way.”

If she were back in the Capitol, Wetherell said she’d like to “tweak” some state rules and regulations and laws in order to expedite the permitting process. Two of her top priorities would be requiring that a fee be charged to file a petition against a permit and addressing the issue of who has standing to appeal because permits that are challenged in this state can easily take six months to a year to get on the docket.

“Florida is way behind a lot of other progressive states,” she says, “and if we’re going to have a competitive renewable energy sector, most people are understanding they need to facilitate it now and let Florida and Florida businesses develop this sector.”

The irony in her evolution isn’t lost on Wetherell. “I think I’m getting paid back for my years as a regulator,” she jokes. “It’s karma. It’s my turn to be in the hot seat.”

Tags: Politics & Law, Environment, Government/Politics & Law

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