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Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

In Florida, Warming Gives Earth Day New Urgency

Kevin Spear

ORLANDO, Fla. - Tomorrow is Earth Day, and it arrives with the kind of urgency not felt since the holiday was created 37 years ago.The first Earth Day in 1970 triggered a grass-roots uproar against rampant pollution that was endangering air, water and wildlife. A worried nation supported swift passage of powerful environmental laws. 0421 04 1 2 3

In the decades that followed came a lull in Earth Day fervor. The holiday meant a chance to plant a tree, view a wildlife exhibit and hear eco-friendly talk from corporations.

But this Earth Day is different. It arrives as the world struggles with what scientists have described as the most daunting threat to life on the planet: global warming.

Earth Day is being taken widely as not just a day of praising all things green. This weekend, thousands of Earth Day events across the nation, from seminars to celebrations, will join in an urgent call for action on global warming.

"We can't just keep putting our heads in the sand," said Sampuran Khalsa, a Central Florida businessman who recently invested heavily in solar energy.

"The world is changing, and we can face that and go forward enthusiastically, or we can be dragged kicking and screaming," he said.

The scientific case for human-induced causes of global warming has gained substantial ground.

In a much-awaited report, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in February that it was 90 percent certain most global warming is caused by pollution. The primary form is carbon dioxide from autos, power plants and industry.

If unchecked, said the panel, coastal lands will be submerged, countless species will die and vast famines will strike.

Reaction to warming fears has been worldwide, with a wide variety of response in Central Florida.

Earth Day celebrations are bringing more attention to the types of ongoing projects growing more popular for their contributions toward fighting climate change.

Among them, entrepreneurs last year announced plans to build a power plant that burns grass cultivated in nearby fields. Unlike coal and natural gas, such a fuel won't extract carbon from underground and inject it into the atmosphere. A location is under negotiation, but the plant will be in south Central Florida and large enough to serve 80,000 homes when it opens in 2009.

Last month, the Catholic Diocese of Orlando hosted a hearing at which participants discussed ways of shielding the poor and powerless from the destructive effects of global warming, regardless of the cause.

"We can no longer as the Catholic community or any other church community deny that this is an issue," said Deborah Stafford Shearer, director of the diocese's Respect Life Office.

'Cheap, clean and fast'

Last Monday, students at the University of Central Florida, along with the Florida Electric Auto Association and the Orlando Utilities Commission, assembled a small fleet of electric cars and offered test-drives to the public.

"Cheap, clean and fast," said Hugh Webber, a member of the Electric Auto Association. "They are super vehicles."

Those at the event estimated that in a few to 15 years, roads will be dominated by electric vehicles. Gordon Nelson, dean of the College of Science at Florida Institute of Technology, said it will happen when the right pieces come into place.

"People will adopt ideas not just because they think they are green but because it also makes economic and social sense."


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He could have been describing businessman Khalsa, 54, who started Nanak's Landscaping in 1973. Unable to sleep one night, he was surfing the Internet and stumbled upon details for a Florida grant for solar power at businesses.

From there, Khalsa got $80,000 in grant cash, secured federal tax credits and spent $30,000 of his own. Installed a few months ago, his solar works provide his Altamonte Springs headquarters with about $350 worth of electricity a month.

But covering his roof with solar panels was just a start.

Khalsa also dumped seven sport utility vehicles and replaced them with the gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius. He got rid of 25 pickups and bought cars that sip a gallon of gas every 30 miles.

"It was a little bit of a shock for some of the people to go from driving a truck to a compact car," Khalsa said. "But it's the right direction."

People such as Peggy Cox, a longtime Audubon activist in Central Florida, are thrilled to be getting new company in responding to global warming.

"A lot of us have believed that we can't wait until there's an emergency," Cox said. "If we do wait, then it's too late."

Each of her light sockets has an electricity-saving compact fluorescent bulb. Regular bulbs are banned in her home just as they soon may be in Europe.

Other changes at home are more costly. But there's help from some electric utilities -- an industry long criticized by environmentalists for being too slow to adopt cleaner ways to generate power.

Progress Energy Florida earlier this year began handing out $450 rebates to customers who use less of the utility's electricity by installing solar panels that heat water and by participating in an energy-management program.

The panels and installation can cost thousands of dollars. According to Progress figures, using the sun to heat household water can save $200 to $300 a year for a family of four. Solar heating also cuts back on carbon dioxide discharged by power plants.

Convention-center idea

In another example, Orlando Utilities Commission wants to contribute to what might become the Southeast's largest solar-energy project. The Orange County Convention Center is trying to launch a $6.2 million project to install 2 1/2 acres of rooftop solar panels.

OUC will contribute $1 million, while center officials are aiming for a $2.5 million state grant, which they narrowly lost out on this year but are applying for again.

The array could cut the center's $1 million-a-month electricity costs by about one-quarter. The idea came from California, birthplace of many alternative-energy efforts.

Jerry Daigle, the center's deputy general manager, said he saw a huge solar-energy system while visiting another convention center, the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

"Why can't we have one?" Daigle recalled asking himself. "We're the Sunshine State, and we're very behind on solar."

Kevin Spear can be reached at 407-420-5062 or

Copyright © 2007, Orlando Sentinel

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