Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam treads carefully with new energy policy

TALLAHASSEE — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam wants lawmakers to develop a comprehensive energy policy for Florida — a topic they've shelved for several years.

Putnam is pushing 11 proposals that he says will start the state on a path to energy diversity by reducing its dependency on natural gas.

But he's moving with caution.

The last person to push for energy reform in Florida was former Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist called for sweeping reform in 2007 when attacking climate change was more politically popular. A year after he left office, Crist's policies lie dormant in statutes or have been repealed.

Putnam said in an interview that his approach is "more market-oriented, more modest."

"I think it reflects better capability of new technologies rather than what we think they might one day be," Putnam said.

Highlights include: allowing utilities to charge ratepayers for the cost of developing 75 megawatts or 1 percent of their generating capacity from renewable energy; allowing utilities to enter into approved financing projects with renewable energy companies, something they can already do with publicly owned solid waste facilities; and reviving $16 million in tax breaks for investments in renewable energy technology and production.

Putnam acknowledges his platform isn't earth-shattering. Still, several renewable energy supporters said they're grateful someone is starting to shoulder the cause for energy diversity and conservation.

"We would always like to see more aggressive efforts to move the needle faster," said Susan Glickman of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "But it was a pleasant change to have a statewide leader starting that conversation."

The energy focus comes seven months after Putnam inherited the state's energy office. The Legislature in July dismantled the Energy and Climate Commission, a Crist creation housed within the office of Gov. Rick Scott, and transferred its responsibilities to Putnam's agency, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"This has bounced all over state government, and now it has landed in the lap of the red-headed stepchild," Putnam said. "And we're going to do something with it."

Putnam also proposes repealing the state's renewable portfolio standard, a Crist-era requirement that the Legislature never enacted for fear of raising prices on consumers. Instead Putnam wants the Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies, to embed renewables into Florida's future regulatory scheme.

Without talking specifics about the energy proposals, Crist applauded Putnam for taking responsibility and going slow.

"There is a political reality that you have to deal with in the Legislature, and it's a pretty conservative bunch to say the least," Crist said. "You have be practical."

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, chairman of the House Energy and Utilities Subcommittee that heard Putnam's presentation on Thursday, said he would advance some of the ideas as a proposed committee bill. Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, chairman of the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, said he will do the same.

A handful of leaders from the renewable energy industry said they need to read the bills before embracing Putnam's goals.

"People who believe in the concept of renewable energy were probably excited," said Mike Antheil, Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy executive director. "People in the industry, it probably didn't do a lot for us."

Bruce Kershner, executive director of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, is also not sure how the bill could affect members of his trade group of contractors that install solar roofs.

"We've gone too many years now without any major energy policy being passed by the Legislature," Kershner said. "These are initial steps that hopefully we can take and start creating an energy policy that will not only benefit the solar industry, but all of the renewables."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders @tampabay.com.

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