The island’s solar array still produces the majority of Pigeon Key’s power for the moment. CONTRIBUTED

By Anthony Guntert

For years the historical island of Pigeon Key has met all its electrical needs through a set of large, labor intensive diesel generators. The site of a popular summertime marine biology camp, the island’s organizers were always unhappy with their reliance on burning fossil fuels when one of their primary missions was making sure the beautiful ecosystem in their Keys home was as pristine and healthy as possible. “We’ve always been preaching environmentalism and sustainability, yet we were burning these diesel generators,” said Kelly McKinnon, Pigeon Key Foundation executive director.

Henry Flagler’s famous Seven Mile Bridge, under a section of which Pigeon Key resides, has been under extensive renovations since late 2017 to repair years of punishing South Florida weather and wear. After close to seven months of the construction crews relying on large, unwieldy generators, the Florida Department of Transportation decided to punch a power connection through the bottom of the bridge to save both money and time, giving McKinnon an idea. Just last month, after a flurry of phone calls, McKinnon said he was able to work out a deal with the bridge contractors to run a power line just a bit farther down to Pigeon Key, a plan that saved countless hours of organizational work and what would likely have been a much larger amount of funds than the $500,000 the finished project is expected to cost. 

After years of trying to attain a cleaner power source for the island, in 2013 McKinnon successfully lobbied for, and secured, the money for a large solar array on the island, installed by local company Sea Air Land Technologies, that promised to provide more than 90% of the island’s electrical needs at the time. While everyone on and off the island was excited for this new development and the reduction of their reliance on generators, McKinnon knew that much more needed to be done, especially if the island were to do something it hadn’t in a while: grow. 

The camp, the old bunkhouses and the museum all eat up not-insignificant amounts of power, and even with the new solar panels, a small diesel generator was still needed to pick up the occasional slack. Kelly said he was thinking of the island’s future, drumming up plans not only to eliminate the last of the diesel, but also to actually connect Pigeon Key to the rest of the Keys by using a unique opportunity. 

McKinnon said that of the many people involved in helping this project become a reality, the support of the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative was invaluable in helping keep the normally soaring costs of Keys construction low. FKEC representative John Stuart spoke on the cooperatives’ consultations on everything from cost effectiveness to the sizing of materials and the best vendors from which to find fair deals. Most importantly, the FKEC was able to install a meter on the Knight’s Key side of the bridge to make it an official part of the Marathon system. With a grant of $300,000 from the TDC, a loan from First State Bank and the guidance of the FKEC, Pigeon Key has been able to meet all its electrical needs without a combustion engine for the first time since Flagler. “That’s something we’re proud of here on the island,” said McKinnon. “We’re also grateful we no longer have to lug heavy loads of diesel to the island every weekend.” 

“The stars all aligned to get (the power) in there,” he said. “The county has tasked us with really maximizing the potential of the island now that the bridge is coming back on line. There was no way to do that without bringing a power line down. I want this to be the hub for Monroe County’s cultural, scientific, environmental life. If you want to put something on, you’ll want to have it at Pigeon Key; it’ll be the best place to do anything.” 

Pigeon Key is leased from Monroe County to the Pigeon Key Foundation to give historical tours, host marine biology summer camps and act as a site for scientific research. With a real possibility of hosting weddings, festivals and high-end events like Ted Talks sometime in the near future, Pigeon Key’s new connections have opened the proverbial gates for positive growth on a hardy little island full of history and a true knack for change.

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