Florida environmentalists bittersweet over renewable energy proposal listen04/22/11 Kate Bradshaw
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A state senate committee is taking up a bill that would give Florida’s major power companies more incentive to go solar. Skeptics say it would line the pockets of Tallahassee’s biggest campaign donors at the expense of small businesses, and are trying to amend the bill to make room for the little guy.
As is, Senate Bill 2078 is bittersweet for clean energy advocates. On one hand it would mean more of Florida’s energy would come from clean sources like solar and wind. On the other, it could create a hostile environment for smaller renewable energy producers. Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the bill kills competition by allowing only major utilities to sell energy to consumers.
"They can buy energy from third parties and go what's called above avoided costs, but to pay for those purchases, but it doesn't require them and therefore would not help to build the kind of market that these renewable energy producers are looking for."
SB 2078 would grant permission to Florida’s major utility companies, also known as investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to pass costs of constructing renewable energy plants onto consumers. It does not provide for a fair rate by which power companies would buy power produced by a smaller renewable company or netter by a home system. Glickman compares renewable energy development to what happened with the telecom industry late last century. She said in the 20th century there was a drive for universal service, but that thinking is becoming obsolete.
"We are in a different world, we have different, many different ways to provide energy. There's so much energy efficiency opportunity out there that we don't take advantage of because utilities are incentivised to build power plants, because they put that into their rate base and that's how they make money."
Mike Antheil, Executive Director of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy said his organization supports two amendments to the bill filed by Melbourne Republican Thad Altman. One would require utilities to purchase at least 20 percent of their renewables from consumers and small businesses. The other would require them to pay a fair rate. The amendments failed in a subcommittee earlier this month, but Altman has filed them again for review by the Senate Budget Committee. Without the amendments, Antheil said, utilities have just as much incentive to buy power from coal or natural gas companies.
"The utilities will buy it from you but they'll buy it from you at what's called avoided costs which is an enigmatic, mysterious number but it's also very, very low. Anywhere from the 4 to 6 cent range. Avoided costs means what they could just as soon turn around and buy that electricity from coal or natural gas or what have you. So that's how much they will buy your electricity for. The amendment would have allowed you to sell your electricity at a more reasonable rate, an economically viable rate. Something that would attract the private investment market to come in and back those projects."
Glickman said the state should be at the forefront of developing renewables, but Florida writes policies favoring giant utilities, it would drive away companies that innovate.
"They will not come to the state of Florida if we don't have the policies in place that create the kind of market where they can thrive."
Florida Power and Light spokesperson Jackie Anderson said she disagrees.
"You know, under normal rules simply we would build a natural gas plant and that's what we have done. The legislation basically allows the Public Service Commission to look at renewable energy as well as an option because we understand that the state needs to one, diversify our fuel sources, and also that it can really help this economy."
Anderson didn’t say what kind of rate utilities would be willing to pay renewable energy companies and consumers who produce an excess of power with their home systems. She said the legislation doesn’t hurt smaller businesses because utilities would still buy some renewable power from outside sources.
But Mike Antheil, of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, said he doubts the major utilities would pay smaller companies or homeowners a fair price for the power they generate.
State Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey, voted against SB 7028 in committee. He said the bill favors utilities, and that it essentially creates a tax since it allows power companies to pass renewable energy plant construction costs onto consumers.
"It would still allow a utility company to get reimbursed for money that they should be putting out themselves and investing themselves and not requiring the customer to reimburse them."
Fasano said this isn’t the only apparently industry-friendly bill in Tallahassee this session. These include bills that could result in property insurance rate hikes, industry deregulation, or reduced coverage for consumers. He said the legislature has favored an unprecedented number of anti-consumer bills this year, and part of that may have something to do with who’s in the governor’s mansion.
"You know, in the past we've had governors Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist, that would not allow these anti-consumer bills to come to their desks. They would send a message very early on telling the legislature don't send me those bills because I'm going to veto them."
Fasano added that some of the bold pro-industry measures making their way through the house and senate demonstrate a profound disconnect between Tallahassee’s Republican leadership and the recession-battered electorate that sent them there.
"I think some of my Republican colleagues have gotten the wrong message. The message wasn't 'please raise my insurance premiums and please raise my electric bill.' The message was, you know, 'Control some of this. We're hurting out here.' "
The Senate budget committee will likely take up the renewable energy bill Monday or Tuesday as it slogs through nearly seventy other provisions.