Congresswoman Kathy Castor pledged Monday "to raise the profile" of the state's need to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
In the hourlong meeting with elected officials and a growing coalition of grass roots groups, Castor said Florida continues to trail more states when it comes to energy policy.
Castor, D-Tampa, said there needs to be "greater pressure on our utilities … greater pressure on our Public Service Commission" to deploy more solar power and implement more energy efficiency strategies.
"When I look at what is happening in other states across the country, Florida is way back," said Castor, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee. "I think (consumers) are mad, but they're feeling helpless."
Several of the more than a dozen attendees at the meeting in St. Petersburg are environmental groups that have been mounting campaigns to urge Duke Energy to increase use of solar energy and energy efficiency as an alternative to coal and construction of new power plants.
Some also have been calling on the state Legislature to repeal the so-called advance fee law that allows utilities to charge their customers for some of the costs of new nuclear plants even before the units produce any power.
The group attributed Monday's meeting in large part to ongoing reports in the Tampa Bay Times about Duke's failed nuclear ambitions that are costing customers $3.2 billion, though they'll never see a kilowatt of nuclear power for the money.
When it comes to solar energy, Florida already lags way behind sun-drenched California and Arizona, and also not-so-sunny states including New Jersey and Massachusetts. It will also likely soon trail neighboring Georgia. And Mississippi is instituting more aggressive energy efficiency policies and programs
State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who attended the meeting, said part of the problem has been the state's focus on new nuclear power. The nuclear advance fee, Dudley said, is the biggest example of the state catering to the interest of the utility companies over implementing policies that most benefit consumers.
"It's a horrible way to collect money, to have a gun to your customers' heads," Dudley said.
Castor said the state needs to focus on bringing more energy-efficient appliances to consumers and using smart technologies. One example, she said, is a Google program that allows consumers to monitor and control appliances and equipment over the Internet, even when they are away from home.
"Utilities in Florida have been absent on that," Castor said.
PSC spokeswoman Cindy Muir, who was not at the meeting, said the commission regularly reviews utility plans for "efficient, cost-effective generation to meet customer needs, as allowed by statute."
"Efficiency measures and renewables will increasingly be reflected in the plans as they become more cost-effective," she said.
City Councilman Karl Nurse said at the meeting that St. Petersburg is looking at several measures to make the city more green.
Nurse said Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman plans to create a "green officer" position in his administration to help with energy and environmental matters. The city, Nurse said, also is looking at use of solar canopies or carports to generate electricity and provide shade. One such application, he said is possibly installing solar panels on a redesign of the pier.
Within the next few days, the city expects to receive a contract from Duke Energy for LED street lights that will ultimately save taxpayers $1.8 million a year in electricity expense, Nurse said.
"There are several hundred million dollars a year that can be saved across the state," Nurse said, if utilities give more cities sensible LED street light deals.
Castor said Florida needs to re-evaluate its energy policy so that more of these strategies can be implemented. Right now, she said, utilities make their money by building new power plants rather than finding ways to reduce energy consumption and take advantage of renewable energy to save customers money and reduce the carbon footprint.
"It goes back to that failed model (of) selling as much energy as possible," she said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.