* First phase of pipeline could enter service in 2017
* Pipeline to run from Alabama to central Florida
* FPL sees three new Florida power plants on by 2016
By Scott DiSavino
Jan 29 (Reuters) - U.S. power company NextEra Energy Inc is seeking proposals to build a natural gas pipeline to serve the growing demand for the fuel in Florida, its chief financial officer said on Tuesday.
"As customer demand grows and fleets across the state shift to more natural gas-fired generation, Florida's natural gas needs will increase significantly," NextEra CFO Moray Dewhurst told analysts on a conference call following the release of fourth-quarter earnings.
In December, NextEra's Florida Power and Light (FPL) unit issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a third major gas pipeline to serve Florida.
The proposed "Southeast Pipeline" will provide 400,000 million British thermal units (mmBtu) per day of gas capacity for Florida beginning in 2017, and an additional 200,000 mmBtu per day beginning in May 2020, Dewhurst said.
He said the pipeline will consist of two segments and run about 700 miles in total.
The first, or upstream portion, will run from western Alabama to a new hub in Central Florida that will interconnect with all major existing Florida pipelines.
"This portion will access the abundant onshore natural gas resources, helping reduce reliance on off-shore resources which can be disrupted by tropical weather," Dewhurst said.
The second, or downstream segment, will run from the Central Florida hub to connect with FPL's giant Martin County oil/gas power plant.
Dewhurst said the company had not yet determined total capital expenditures for the pipeline project, noting the routes will be selected and proposed by companies submitting bids.
As part of the process, Dewhurst said NextEra expects to offer a self-build option for the downstream portion and is prepared to consider investing in support of the selected upstream option to help speed things up.
He said the company expects to begin evaluating proposals during the second quarter of 2013, with construction expected to be completed in 2017.
NextEra has said Florida uses more gas for electricity than any U.S. state other than Texas, with about 60 percent of power generated by plants that burn natural gas.
But unlike Texas, Florida has minimal gas production, no storage capabilities and only two major pipelines to deliver the fuel that powers the peninsula.
The company said building a pipeline will generate thousands of jobs during construction and millions of dollars in new tax revenue for local schools and governments.
In 2012, Dewhurst said FPL's fossil fuel fleet reached a record level of efficiency, bringing the system-wide heat rate down to 7,669 British thermal units (BTU) per kilowatt hour, or roughly 24 percent better than the industry average of 10,040 BTUs per kilowatt hour.
In 2012, he said the company invested more than $4 billion at FPL with more than $830 million of this associated with the modernization of three old oil and gas-fired power plants in Florida into efficient combined cycle gas plants.
The Cape Canaveral project is currently on schedule and under budget, with an expected in-service date of June 2013.
The Riviera Beach modernization is also on time and on budget, with an expected in-service state of June 2014, he said.
FPL expects the modernized Port Everglades plant to enter service in June 2016, with demolition of the existing plant planned for the second quarter of this year, he said.
On the nuclear front, he said FPL has completed three of four planned extended power upgrades, investing roughly $3 billion to date and adding about 395 MW of clean, emissions-free energy to the fleet.
The final upgrade at Turkey Point 4 is expected to come online in the spring of 2013 and add about 120 MW of capacity, he said.