How close is St. Petersburg to fulfilling its clean energy promise? It is unknown.

St. Petersburg made history in 2016 when it became the first city in Florida to pledge to transition to clean energy, citing the threat that rising sea levels pose to a place surrounded on three sides by water.

By 2019, he developed a detailed plan with an ambitious goal: by 2035, homes, businesses and all other infrastructure within city limits will be completely powered by renewable energy.

But five years after adopting this plan, the city doesn’t know if everything is on track, because it’s not have data on where electricity comes from.

However, the limited information officials have recently received from Duke Energy shows that the city is using more energy than at any point in at least the last decade — further pushing the issue beyond the intermediate goal of reducing the city’s energy consumption.

City Council member Richie Floyd, who recently became chairman of the council Energy and Sustainability calls on Duke to provide more data.

“I am incredibly frustrated and will continue to insist that we receive this information,” he said. “If we’re not getting the information we’re actually entitled to from our energy supplier, what do we do?”

Duke Energy spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said the utility was unable to determine the sources of electricity used within St. St. Petersburg. It only calculates its fuel mix from a statewide perspective.

“Once a plant has fed energy into the grid, it is impossible to determine (divide) how much of that energy comes from a specific source, such as solar or natural gas,” Gibbs wrote in an email. “Another way to describe it is that we cannot follow the electrons as they flow through the grid to determine their final destination.”

The latest statewide data shows that nearly 79% of Duke Energy Florida’s electricity comes from burning natural gas, a fossil fuel, and about 5% comes from solar energy, the only renewable source listed.

Overall, Florida ranks fifth in natural gas dependence in the nation, according to federal data analyzed by statistical firm Find Energy. It ranks behind 13 other states and the District of Columbia in its share of energy from solar energy.

James Scott, chairman of the Sierra Club Florida executive committee, said St. St. Petersburg isn’t taking its clean energy goal seriously. He was part of the original 2016 campaign to get the city to make the pledge and was disappointed to find that officials had failed to take basic steps.

“The only right thing to do is to say, ‘Hey, here’s the data. It is not good. We’ve been sleeping on this job for the last five years, but now we’re going to do it by sitting idle,” Scott said. “Am I optimistic that this will happen? NO.”

Far from the route

Officials knew meeting the 2035 clean energy goal would not be easy. The 2019 Clean Energy Roadmap report, which lays out steps to achieve this goal, states that it “can only be achieved through aggressive and immediate action.” That same year, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and former mayor of New York, announced that St. St. Petersburg will receive more than $2 million in technical support from its philanthropic organization to help the city implement initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.

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The first step, consultants hired by the city wrote, would be to reduce the amount of energy the city uses so that fewer solar panels and other equipment are needed to transition to clean energy. To do this, government officials, businesses and residents would need to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings on a massive scale. St. Petersburg would have to reduce energy consumption by 25% between 2016 and 2025, and then more by 2035.

However, earlier this year, Duke Energy provided data regarding energy consumption, which showed that the city is far from the designated path. Instead of reducing demand, citywide consumption has increased by almost 11% since 2016.

Alizza Punzalan-Randle, a city spokeswoman working in Mayor Ken Welch’s office, attributed the increase to a growing population and record summer temperatures.

Floyd said these findings show why he insists talks on a clean energy target.

“We have set this goal and it is time for us to feel responsible,” he said.

Tension with Duke

Scott of the Sierra Club said it’s not just the data that’s missing. The city should already have installed enough solar panels on municipal buildings to generate the energy they consume.

According to the city’s 2019 report, municipal activities generate only 3% of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire city. But Scott said government officials could set an example if they used clean energy for municipal purposes.

“The fact that this work has not yet been done speaks volumes,” he said. “We lost a lot of time.”

The Sierra Club is also pushing for increased clean energy demand if the Tropicana Field is redeveloped.

Punzalan-Randle pointed to many city initiatives, such as replacing streetlights with LED bulbs, installing electric vehicle chargers and improving or the addition of solar panels to the town hall, new police headquarters, pier and recreation centers as examples of progress. She said some of these projects were a collaboration with Duke.

The city also participates in a Duke program called Clean Energy Connection. Under the program, subscribers pay extra to their electricity bills to receive more energy from photovoltaics. In return, they receive gradually increasing credit on their bills. Generally, subscribers pay slightly more on their monthly bills for the first eight or nine years, at which point the credit outweighs the subscription fee, according to a presentation to board members last month by Derick Farfan, Duke’s general manager of strategy and planning. .

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard expressed hope that any decisions about increasing the city’s subscription fee would be made by the council, not solely by Duke and the mayor’s office.

“I just don’t want this to be something that happens in the back room and isn’t discussed here in the light of day. Period,” she said during a meeting last month.

Floyd wasn’t impressed.

“It sounded like a corporate black box that we really had no control over,” he said later.

Hanging over the discussion was the fact that the city’s legal agreement with Duke was up for renewal in 2026. Both Gabbard and Floyd floated the idea of ​​spinning off and forming a municipal corporation if Duke did not cooperate enough in meeting its clean energy goals. The threat has appeared before. The 2019 report noted that St. Petersburg “sought a much bolder commitment from the Duke of Florida” and that the city could be forced to create its own utility “if such progress is not achieved” in key key areas.

“Duke Energy is proud to support the vitality of the communities we serve and looks forward to delivering innovative solutions that will help the City of St. Petersburg to achieve its clean energy goals in the coming years,” Duke’s Gibbs said in an email.

Although the Welch administration must to negotiate a new contract with Duke, the City Council must approve it. Welch previously said he wanted a “detailed analysis” of the pros and cons of leaving Duke. He cited his previous experience working for one of Duke’s predecessors, Florida Power, which gave him a full understanding of the infrastructure that would be required for the city to step in.

“You can’t take anything off the table at this point,” he said earlier this year.

Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.