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Lawmakers Turn Their Gaze To The Future

In the midst of perennial debates over abortion and gun control, lawmakers paused briefly to contemplate a nearly utopian future – one where cars drive themselves and the mighty Gulf Stream provides most of our energy needs.

On Wednesday, as lobbyists for local waste-to-energy plants lined up to complain about monopoly power companies, House energy subcommittee Chairwoman Kathleen Peters nervously looked at the clock.

“We have another presentation that I’m real excited about and it’s about the future, the possible future of something different than what we’ve heard about, so I’m going to ask if you come up to be concise and not repeat what we’ve already heard if that’s Okay.”

Moments later, Lake Worth lobbyist Richard Pinsky stepped to the microphone to make a major announcement.  

Florida Atlantic University researchers have just reached a deal with the city’s municipal power plant to begin testing methods for harnessing the Gulf Stream. 

“This is different, what you are hearing, no one else, really in the United States, certainly in Florida, is hearing before today. This potential eclipses every other renewable energy source.”

Seven years ago, FAU became home to the Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center. Director Susan Kemp told the committee a 2013 Georgia Tech study shows the Gulf Stream is packing a 45 Terawatt hour-per-year punch. 

“That is about the same amount of energy for the portfolio in Florida of coal. If you look further, that is about 4 to 6 gigawatts. And 4 to 6 gigawatts in context, Turkey Point is about 1.4 gigawatts and St. Lucie is about 2 gigawatts.”

The upside of marine renewable energy is that it’s virtually pollution free, emitting no greenhouse gases and generating zero nuclear waste. The downside is potential harm to marine life. Kemp told lawmakers her center is studying regulatory regimes to soften the ecological impact.

The center began testing marine turbines off of Palm Beach County in 2014. This year, center officials are applying for a 350 thousand dollar state energy grant to cover the cost of wiring the Lake Worth power plant to the testing site.

Also this week, Florida State University urban planning professor Tim Chapin told a Senate transportation committee about a revolution driven by so-called “autonomous vehicles.”

“The short story here is that change is coming to Florida, to the United States, to the world, in the form of autonomous vehicles, and we believe this that this is going to be truly transformational technology.”

Chapin and FSU planner in residence Lindsay Stevens told the panel they expect half of all cars on the road to be driverless by 2040, and a full transition by 2060.

They described a future where seniors don’t have to surrender their mobility when they give up the car keys, and where robot cars chauffer kids to after school activities. Stevens said driving lanes will narrow and bike lanes will sprout, and parking lots will no longer be needed.

“If you think about a typical mall with a 100-year parking event, if you will, or the parking that even doesn’t even fill up on Thanksgiving or the day after Thanksgiving, these are really holding areas we see for redevelopment opportunities moving forward.”

Experts expect a dramatic reduction in the nation’s 30 thousand annual traffic fatalities, but Stevens says not all changes may be welcome. Driverless cars will eliminate the hassles of the daily commute, but she said that could also encourage urban sprawl.

John Terwilleger, an industry attorney with Gunster in South Florida, says Florida is the most welcoming state in the nation for autonomous vehicles.

“In Florida, there really are very few legal barriers. The biggest factor in an autonomous vehicle is just that it has to follow the traffic safety laws and be able to drive under the same rules as everyone else.”

Still on the horizon, experts say, are big questions about automobile insurance and civil liability.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.