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How a Florida biologist became one of America’s greenest mayors

Sixty-year-old Philip Stoddard, the mayor of South Miami and a full-time biology professor at Florida International University, practices what he preaches. He lives in a house entirely powered by the solar array on his roof, which he installed in 2014. It works so well that he pays Florida Power & Light $9.41 a month — the cost of the connection fee and taxes. Solar panels cost $11,500 after a federal income tax deduction. “We then purchased a used Nissan Leaf electric vehicle to soak up some of the extra solar power we were selling to Florida Power & Light,” says Stoddard, “for peanuts — avoided fuel costs, roughly 2.5 cents/kWh. So now our house and car are both net-zero.”

In Stoddard’s eight years as mayor he has fought off attempts by Florida Power & Light to install high-power transmission lines and stimulated rooftop solar by enacting cost reductions and tax benefits, as well as programs that let property owners borrow money to buy solar panels, wind generators, insulation or shutters for their homes. He may be America’s most outspoken mayor — he told The Guardian in 2014 that Senator Marco Rubio was “an idiot,” has called Florida Power & Light “an evil genius,” and accused Florida Gov. Rick Scott of packing the Public Service Commission with pro-utility regulators who rubber stamp utility requests.

Stoddard is no pollyanna environmentalist: he contends that sea level rise will eventually force Miami to depopulate. “There’s no keeping the water out,” he says, and proposes that the residents of south Florida will need to slowly migrate inland while Miami is eventually turned into protected wetlands and aquatic parks. In the meantime, he’s busy trying to make his city of 12,000 residents as green and resilient as possible.

Stoddard was first elected in 2010. He is currently serving his fourth term as mayor.  Southeast Energy News talked to him about how and why he became a mayor, how he marshals science to pass successful legislation supporting renewable and green energy, and what he sees for the future of climate-vulnerable cities like South Miami.

How did a wildlife biologist specializing in birds and fish become an outspoken and media-savvy mayor often pitting the city’s fate against the utilities?

I was extremely reluctant to run at first, because I have a great life as a biologist, so why do something crazy like run for mayor? But then I got to thinking about how effective an environmentalist could be in public office, and I got excited. Based on our dense population and location Florida is the state most vulnerable to climate change in all of America, and yet FPL is investing in carbon-based energy production. It doesn’t make sense as a ratepayer or a citizen to go in this direction.

I have been a thorn in the side of FPL since 2009. They had plans to build 89 miles of high power transmission lines that would go right through the middle of my city. One line would run roughly along South Dixie Highway, the other on the edge of the Everglades. These transmission lines were sought in conjunction with FPL’s plan to add two nuclear reactors at their Turkey Point complex in Miami-Dade. Governor Rick Scott approved the nuclear project and the lines in 2014, without requiring them to be run underground. I knew as a biologist that the magnetic fields from high power transmission lines are linked to an elevation in childhood leukemia. (Editor’s note: No consistent evidence for an association between transmission lines and cancer has been found, according to the National Cancer Institute.) We held a town hall and I explained the scientific evidence against such lines. I also started showing up at government hearings and writing letters to the editor of local papers. And the residents asked me to run for mayor. The mayor at the time, Horace Filiu, was a great friend of FPL and had endorsed the construction of two new nuclear plants just south of us. I filed in 2010, half an hour before the deadline, and I won 59 percent of the vote. The position pays me $14,000 a year and FIU cuts my pay 10 percent to allow me to do my job as mayor. I run every two years, and this is my fourth term.

What happened with the transmission lines?

Initially, we lost to the administrative judge, but then the 3rd District Court of Appeal unanimously sided with the challengers including Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami, the city of South Miami and the Village of Pinecrest. But then in the summer of 2017 the city of Miami began to consider settling with FPL, and to pay a substantially discounted amount to run the lines underground… That puts South Miami and Pinecrest on our own. Normally your partners aren’t supposed to settle on you without discussing it.

Right now FPL is trying to legislate around us by changing the rules, and putting the entire responsibility with the PSC, which they more or less wholly own. So they’re trying to change requirements like meeting zoning codes or just by legislating around us. They failed in last year’s legislative session but they’re trying again, they have infinite resources and infinite patience and they’ll keep at it. But the reality is, they want these lines as part of two nuclear power plants, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that nuclear is pretty much dead. In May of 2016 they said they would postpone plans for the reactors by at least four years. The fact is, the cost of nuclear has more than tripled while the cost of solar has fallen like a rock.

Tell us about your solar coop initiative and rebates.

We’re going as renewable as we can, considering the fact that FPL is our sole provider. If we owned our own municipal power it would be much easier. But we encourage residents to put solar on their houses and I found a way to fund solar through buying cooperatives that bring the price of solar down and increase solar penetration. In South Miami, residential solar has a higher roof to volume ratio than commercial. Most of our roofstock is residential.

We utilize Solar United Neighbors of Florida. There is a 30 percent federal tax credit. These coops are being used all over the country. Essentially, as soon as 30 qualified homes with sunny roofs sign up we issue a Request for Proposal to installers through the state. They submit competitive bids and participants in the co-op volunteer to be on a selection committee and choose one installer to serve the entire group. [They] also just launched an individual membership program to help homeowners go solar when there is no coop.  I sit on the Green Corridor Board, which initially provided a $75,000 grant to Solar United Neighbors of Florida to launch and manage six solar co-ops across Miami-Dade county over the course of a year, and they have indicated they wish to continue.

We also passed an ordinance that would require solar on new single-family residential construction. FPL caught wind of this and suddenly up pops an anti-solar lobby, with robo calls and lobbyists to stir up our African-American community, telling them it would raise the cost of their housing. The reality is that solar lowers the total cost of owning a house.

The city of South Miami also filed an amicus brief, alongside the League of Women Voters, and in conjunction with a brief filed by Sierra Club, charging that the PSC had approved FPL’s request for new peaker plants that would cost ratepayers—and that they had done so without first investigating alternative and more economic energy sources. Tell us about your amicus brief.

Well, we have a direct interest in this case because we are in FPL’s service area, and so our residents and businesses are now paying for the new peaker power plants, as part of a rate hike approved by the Florida PSC. But the PSC is not supposed to approve rate hikes without evaluating other options available. Demand-side options like energy efficiency have proven effective in numerous communities for addressing peak power demand. Also, renewable and energy storage options rival gas peakers for cost-effectiveness. Because of their reduced carbon emissions, renewables pose less regulatory risk as well. Even FPL’s parent company, Next Era, called energy storage the holy grail of the renewables business that might render peaker plants obsolete in the next few years. That would mean FPL and the PSC have gambled on peakers that may just become stranded assets.

Where is the case now?

Both sides are scheduled to present arguments before the Florida Supreme Court on February 7. If we win, FPL will at least be required to do a feasibility analysis and show the economics of alternative means of energy to meet this need.

What are you doing about sea level rise and sewage? At times, sewage has bubbled up out of the storm drains, and people have flushed their toilets into their bathtubs.

Our city is very low in elevation and when the water table rises it intercepts the drain fields of septic tanks and causes them to fail. We got money from the state to start looking at putting municipal sewer systems into vulnerable neighborhoods, or use new types of package systems, where septic or sewage is piped into a unit the size of a truck trailer, and then is processed, while the solids are taken out and placed elsewhere.

Final thoughts?

Climate change is starting to become a personal issue for a lot of us. Sea level rise is going to push a lot of us out of the state. But it’s not just Florida. My brother-in-law … moved to Santa Rosa, and his front yard was the fire line during the recent wildfires. Neighbors of his were killed. If you visit the lower ninth ward of Louisiana, there are shrines to people who were found dead in their homes. As this spreads and affects more communities, people at the county and municipality level are going to start addressing the future and figuring out what their menu of choices is and how they can best address these issues.

3 thoughts on “How a Florida biologist became one of America’s greenest mayors

  1. Dear Authors: I like what the mayor is doing. But let’s get the science right. There is no evidence for non-ionizing radiation, like that produced by high-power transmission lines, to cause cancer. The link you provide to the National Cancer Institute also states this: ‘ No consistent evidence for an association between any source of non-ionizing EMF and cancer has been found.’ in direct contradiction of the point you are making. This has been studied very deeply. There are plenty of sound scientific arguments for renewable energy. Pseudoscience is not needed.

  2. Wonderful article about a truly terrific and brilliant public servant, Mayor Stoddard