Tim Heberlein says he knows firsthand about the human toll from global climate change.
Heberlein, who directs the Florida Consumer Action Network in Tampa, has been trying to reach Filipino relatives since Typhoon Haiyan struck last Friday — but to no avail.
“It has been devastating,” said Heberlein, who joined more than 100 protesters Wednesday morning outside Duke Energy’s headquarters in downtown St. Petersburg to urge Florida’s largest utility to invest in solar energy.
“Duke Energy needs to stop polluting with fossil fuels and make a real financial investment in clean energy,” said Heberlein, a member of the newly formed Sunshine State Clean Energy Coalition.
The coalition of consumer, labor, physician, political and environmental groups is asking Duke Energy to speed up its phase-out of the polluting Crystal River power plant. The coal-powered units are scheduled to be shuttered by 2020, but the coalition said Wednesday that the timetable is not fast enough.
“This means years of unnecessary illegal pollution that harms public health and impairs the waterways,” according to the coalition, which circulated a petition for supporters to sign. The coalition is pressing Duke Energy to close the plant by 2016 and start investing in clean energy, including solar and wind.
Ann-Marie Varga, spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said that the utility’s plans are to “modernize the coal units and have them operate until 2018.” She said those updates include pollution controls.
For Heberlein, the issue of clean energy hits close to home. His extended family lives in the Philippines, where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by last week’s typhoon.
Heberlein has been able to reach his mother’s family in Manila. But members of his sister-in-law’s family have not been in contact since the typhoon struck. They live in a region of the country hard hit by the record-setting mega-storm, which clocked winds of up to 200 mph.
“With no cell phone towers, we cannot make connections,” he said. “Everything has been in a state of confusion.”
Heberlein noted that it was only last year that Filipino leaders called for members of the United Nations to take meaningful action on climate change. “How much more loss does there need to be?” he asked.
Heberlin said that he is hoping that the Sunshine State Clean Energy Coalition can convince Duke Energy to be “one of our allies and stop polluting with damaging fossil fuels.”
Coalition members include the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Awake Pinellas and the Gulf Restoration Network. The group is circulating a petition calling on Duke to invest in “clean local energy solutions” over “imported polluting energy sources like coal and natural gas.”
Newly elected St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice also spoke at Wednesday morning’s rally.
Rice told the crowd that choosing clean energy is an economic decision. She said that it is “a smarter investment” than relying on coal.
In addition to calling public attention to the need for clean energy, Rice said that she plans to “work with my colleagues on the Council to introduce a clean energy plan” for the city of St. Petersburg.
She said the plan would involve the city taking inventory of its carbon footprint and meeting local goals for reduction. Once the baseline is determined, “we know how to measure success.”
Rice said that there are grants available that the city could apply for to get technical assistance in measuring its carbon footprint.
She noted that other cities, such as Denver, Colo., are taking steps at the local level to reduce their carbon footprint.
Rice and other members of the coalition said that they are focusing their early efforts on Duke Energy because its coal-fired power plant violates air quality standards for sulfur dioxide pollution.
The group added that phasing out of coal plants results in “real, measurable changes in carbon reductions and opens up the market space for clean energy.”