One of the biggest things our Legislature will do this year is pass a gargantuan piece of law that's being called "the energy bill." It will affect us all one way or the other.
I bet you there aren't a dozen people who know by heart everything in this bill. I further bet there aren't more than a handful of our 160 lawmakers who have read it all.
But with little dissent, this 150-page-plus contraption is on its way to becoming the law of Florida. (If you're keeping track, the numbers are Senate Bill 1544 and House Bill 7135.)
It's a mixed bag:
• There's lots of "green" stuff, enough to make Gov. Charlie Crist happy. This bill points Florida in a new direction on climate change and alternative or renewable energy, and some environmentalists welcome that.
• But the bill also shifts our law in favor of Florida's electric companies when it comes to choosing routes for future transmission lines. It makes it harder if not impossible for opponents to propose alternative routes.
• Meanwhile, the bill makes it clear that utilities can bill customers in advance for those lines, as well as for some of the green programs. This is no small matter — Progress Energy Florida, for example, estimates its coming transmission costs at $3-billion.
This bill could be broken apart into separate policy debates. But in typical fashion for Tallahassee, dozens of ideas have been crammed into one big mess. The utilities can get the parts they want, the governor can be green, and everybody else will just have to take the good with the bad.
On the statewide level, the bill would push Florida in the direction of a "cap and trade" program among utilities to limit overall emissions.
Florida would revamp its rules and codes, and develop new requirements for renewable and alternative sources. We would even study whether to "decouple" future electric rates from the volume of consumption, to remove the incentive for companies to sell as much juice as possible.
On the local level, no Floridian could be forbidden by a neighborhood association from installing alternative energy devices and neither would taxes go up for installing them. Local governments would have to include greenhouse gases in their comprehensive plans.
On the other hand, the parts dealing with power plant lines make it easier for utilities to use public land, especially from the Department of Environmental Protection and the rights of way of the Department of Transportation. Opponents would have less time and more expense if they tried to propose alternative routes.
That ease of building new lines, plus the ability to bill customers in advance for billions of dollars in costs, gives Florida utilities the incentive to keep relying on large base-load generating units, critics say. It is a big pill for consumers to swallow, sugarcoated with green candy.
Nothing is easy, and nothing is free. As Florida continues to grow, it will need more power from different sources — and it will cost more money. Neither is being "green" the cheapest way to go in the short run.
Still, this is a heck of a way to make public policy. Throw a hundred things into a big pot, close your eyes, push the button and hope for the best. It will take many years for Floridians to realize the full implications of what the Legislature is about to do.