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Amid gulf oil spill, Florida still looks in vain for a state energy policy

Once upon a time Florida went looking for an energy policy but got terribly lost along the way.

At first, we embraced abundant and cheap coal until the air started getting too polluted. We liked oil okay until prices spiked — as did the price of gas for cars — and we were told to be less dependent on foreign energy.

We recently fell back in love with nuclear power until the price of building plants started to triple in the blink of an eye, and the federal government gave up on a central storage place for all that nasty nuke waste. We embraced ethanol and even biomass (burning wood scraps or fast-growing plants) until our enthusiasm waned, and it became clear it really wasn't such an effective idea after all.

We grabbed on to solar but lost momentum after failing to support it with incentives. We never got serious about wind energy. We heard from Tally leaders how drilling off Florida's coastline was a necessary step in tough times — until BP blew it.

If only by default, we now pray natural gas will generate our electricity, at least for now, and hope its price does not skyrocket.

Then what? Amid this summer's record breaking heat, with electric bills gone wild and a still unstoppered BP oil spill wreaking environmental and economic havoc, when will we get it together with a real energy plan?

Watching energy policy debated in Tallahassee is like watching blindfolded legislators in bumper cars careening in circles. Whether Charlie Crist wins or loses his campaign for U.S. senator, his saddest legacy as governor may be his inability to persuade the Legislature to start making Florida a state with more diversified energy sources, and attracting those businesses to make it so.

Just over a month ago, Tampa's TECO Energy and a business called Energy 5.0 agreed to ditch their plans for a 25-megawatt solar photovoltaic generating station in Polk County. When Tallahassee fumbled a long anticipated mandate to diversify energy sources in the state, TECO and Energy 5.0 called off the deal.

Why are we so unable to think beyond the delivery of the next campaign contribution?

Energy 5.0 now focuses its solar work in states with real energy plans. It's a constant refrain, as Largo's Wayne D. Wallace, president of solar-power firm Solar Source, told the Tallahassee Democrat last week during a Clean Energy Congress event in the state capital. "Florida is just so far behind. We are actually doing more work outside of Florida than we do in Florida."

Compelling data emerged from the Clean Energy Congress. Florida Solar Energy Center director James Fenton indicated that by 2020 every household in Florida will pay $82 more a month for electricity than they do today. While electric power costs are climbing 4.7 percent a year, solar energy costs per kilowatt are heading down.

Tampa Bay's Susan Glickman, an alternative energy lobbyist who helped put the Clean Energy Congress together, says 29 other states already have clear energy policies. Those are the states attracting the specialized businesses to help them diversify their energy needs.

"Florida either wants to get in this game, or not," she says. "The window is closing."

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com

Amid gulf oil spill, Florida still looks in vain for a state energy policy 07/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 8, 2010 8:05am]
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