TALLAHASSEE — In a rare scene at state regulatory hearings, more than 100 protesters from across the state gathered outside the Public Service Commission on Monday to oppose proposals by Florida's utilities to reduce their energy conservation goals.
Chanting "Clean Energy Now!" and waving placards calling for more solar power and energy efficiency, the protesters criticized the commission for refusing to allow them to speak during hearings on the utilities' proposals.
"We asked them to hear you," said Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director of the Sierra Club, which organized the rally and a TV ad campaign. "(The commission said), 'We don't need to hear you.' But they're going to hear our voices louder!"
With rain threatening under cloudy skies and high humidity, the crowd pledged to continue pressing the commission to protect consumers over the interests of the power companies. They had traveled from various areas of Florida, including St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando, Naples, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Pierce.
Among them was Kathleen "Carol" Hamilton, 63, of Clearwater. She said more needs to be done to encourage solar and energy efficiency.
"This is the first demonstration I've ever been involved in," Hamilton said. "I'm just appalled that we're not using solar in Florida in a meaningful way. This brought me out. All of the agencies and residences should have solar panels."
The rally was in protest of proposals by Florida utilities to slash conservation programs by 93 percent. At the same time, the utilities propose to construct tens of billions of dollars of new power plants that experts say, in at least some cases, could be offset with efficiency.
The utilities argue that energy efficiency is costly and no efficiency plan will be enough to meet projected demand in coming years.
Duke Energy "ran the cost effectiveness test," Dianne Triplett, a lawyer for the utility, said in opening statements at the hearing. "They are simply not cost-effective. The low-hanging fruit is not available."
John Butler, a lawyer for Florida Power & Light, said in his comments that even small solar programs have proved too costly to continue. If the state wants to continue solar programs, "utility-scale solar is the way to go."
The NAACP also weighed in on the case, stating that the commission should avoid continuing any programs that harm low-income people in favor of those who can afford such benefits as high-efficiency appliances and solar panels.
But Rep. Dwight Dudley, speaking before the hearing on personal privilege as a legislator, criticized the utilities for proposing measures that would "hurt" all ratepayers. And he chided the commission for not allowing the public to speak during the hearing, saying, "This is not in the interest of the public."
Still, the consumers who traveled to Tallahassee left an impression.
"It's absolutely powerful and encouraging to see you here today," Ennis Leon Jacobs, a former chairman of the PSC, told the crowd before the hearing. "Unfortunately, Florida has chosen the worst time possible to turn back the clock," he said of the energy-efficiency proposals. "We should be looking for alternative, feasible options."
To bolster its effort, the Sierra Club launched an ad campaign in Tampa Bay and Tallahassee as well as online Monday.
"Florida's consumers are paying high prices on their power bills," the ad states. "If the big power companies have their way, our bills will keep going up every year. Tell the Public Service Commission to protect consumers, not big power companies."
The Sierra Club's efforts are backed by the Sunshine State Clean Energy Coalition, a group that includes dozens of environmental and community groups, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has long been pushing for energy policy reform in Florida.
The Southern Alliance has criticized the utilities and the commission for focusing on the interests of the power companies' shareholders over ratepayers.
That's because, the Southern Alliance's Susan Glickman said during the rally, "the more money (utilities) spend, the more money they make."
Contact Ivan Penn at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.