Florida House panel advances renewable energy bill

03/29/11 Kate Bradshaw
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You’ve heard it many times before – Florida is the Sunshine State, so why doesn’t it the nation lead in solar power? Today the state House energy and utility subcommittee tackled that very question by passing a bill encouraging the state’s major utilities to invest in renewable energy. Pensacola Representative Clay Ford is the bill’s Republican sponsor.

"If you want to have a clean state that you can breathe the air and you can drink the water, you've got to get to renewables. That doesn't mean it has to be all renewables but as much as possible, that's affordable, we need to be there. So this is gonna help get us started down that path."

Nobody disagreed with Ford over his reasoning, but some objected to his approach. The bill deals solely with large utility companies like Progress Energy and Florida Power and Light. These are investor-owned utilities, or IOUs. The law would make it easier for them to build renewable energy plants on the customer dime. Don Ryan is Sales and Marketing Director for Gainesville-based Solar Impact, the fifth-largest solar company in the state. He said utilities don’t have the inclination to pursue renewables in a way that would benefit both the environment and the job market.

"I'm embarrassed that the state of New Jersey has more solar electric than the state of Florida. I'm embarrassed that our moniker is the 'Sunshine State' and yet, what we're talking about here today is renewable energy being controlled by investor owned utilities. I'm a capitalist at heart but investor owned utilities, and most of us know this, are beholden to shareholders as they should be. They're not beholden to the citizens of the state of Florida."

Ryan said smaller renewables would have a greater impact on local economies.

"If renewable energy stays in the hands of five investor owned utilities, I can assure you, the roofers and electricians we're using and companies like us all over the state of Florida, will not be asked by the investor owned utilities to build their renewable energy plants."

Florida Research Consortium CEO Jack Sullivan said starting with major utilities will have the greatest impact.

"Seventy-six percent of electricity generated in Florida is by investor owned utilities. You aren't going to make a significant dent in the demand without dealing with that particular segment of the market."

The bill’s sponsor stressed that the law was forged on a largely bipartisan basis. Lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, which often values business over the environment, is even on board. AIF spokesperson Jose Gonzales said the group is all for the bill, which has companion legislation in the Senate, as long as it doesn’t put any kind of a squeeze on utilities.

"I think it has an important impact to what our state's going to look like in the next 10 to 20 years and, you know, obviously we are worried about issues like mandates or subsidies, and things like that, that our members would not support that I don't think that that is, hopefully, the intent of this body and so we continue to look forward to working with all of you and with the chairman on this legislation."

Speaking on behalf of the environmental nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Susan Glickman said it’s a good thing that the state legislature is taking on renewable energy. She noted that Florida imports the lion’s share of its energy to the tune of $15 billion annually. She said it would be a lot better if the bill had addressed smaller companies, which she said would drive competition and keep consumer cost low.

"Because what we do in order to keep this $15 billion here at home is to create a market for renewable energy. You need a broad, robust market and not just simply utility scale, utility owned. Because what happens is that's how you get competition and competition drives innovation and it drives the cost down."

The bill passed without amendment, though there were several attempts among committee members to amend it. One of these was by Republican Representative Ben Albritton from Bartow that created a bidding process that did wouldn’t exclude smaller renewable companies.

"You know there's been a lot of discussion around the topic of competitive forces within this renewable energy package development. What this amendment does is it offers up the opportunity to have a kind of....to introduce competitive forces, an auction if you will, for energy sources and ... into the system."

The amendment failed, though his colleagues commended him for bringing it up. A similar renewable energy bill is being introduced on the Senate floor, and it’s drawing fire over similar concerns. The committee approved the bill, which now has to go to a whole House vote.

Meanwhile, Lakeland’s publicly-owned utility company is expected to announce tomorrow the construction of a 45-acre solar farm that would generate enough electricity to power 2,000 homes.

Previous WMNF news coverage of renewable energy

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