Florida fades in use of renewable energy as big utilities call the shots

Published August 15 2014
Updated August 15 2014

Some enterprising lawyer really should sue the state of Florida for misrepresentation. When it comes to energy resources, calling Florida "the Sunshine State" is as bogus as it gets.

Other slogans come to mind that more realistically capture Florida's energy image. How about "the Pushover State" for starters?

Fresh numbers are out comparing how each state relied at the start of this century on different fuels to generate electricity, and how that has changed today.

In the first quarter of 2001, Florida ranked No. 4 among the states for its use of renewables, including solar power, to generate electricity. By the first quarter of 2014, the state had plummeted to No. 16 in its use of renewables. Florida's 12-spot drop amounts to a dismal sign that the Sunshine State cares little to live up to its name, much less reduce or diversify its energy dependence on other conventional fuel sources.

Those who pay attention to the (lack of) intelligent energy debate here are familiar with Florida's Neanderthal approach. It's deeply ingrained in a captive Tallahassee government so eager to please the monopoly interests of Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light and a few other power companies dominating the state.

In 2001, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Florida's electric generation from renewables was exceeded only by Maine, Alabama and, way ahead at No. 1, California. By 2014, Florida had increased its output from renewables, but at such a pitifully small amount that the state has been passed in renewable output by (in order) Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, North Dakota, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

Ponder the magnitude of Florida's lack of accomplishment. Wyoming, a big coal-lovin' producer whose entire population is dwarfed by the number of residents in Pinellas County, now generates more from renewables than Florida.

How did this happen? The most obvious reason is that big power companies here don't want messy renewables messing up their monopoly gigs.

But there's more to it than that.

1. Florida's state government lacks any energy policy leadership and is bereft of significant energy goals.

2. Gov. Rick Scott has paid little attention to the state's energy sector. So much so that his ignoring Duke Energy's multibillion-dollar flubs with its nuclear power plants — expenses being charged to its hapless ratepayers in Florida — is now becoming an issue in this fall's election.

3. Charlie Crist, Florida's (then Republican) governor from 2007 to 2011 and now running for the same job again this year, made big promises when first entering office that Florida would be a leader in alternative and renewable energy. He never delivered.

4. Florida's Public Service Commission, which is supposed to oversee electric utilities in the state, is perceived — on a good day — as incompetent and a puppet of big power companies and state legislators that control PSC nominations and enjoy utility largesse.

5. Florida consumers remain too disorganized, demoralized or distracted to rally in sufficient numbers to demand change in Tallahassee. A sprinkling of protests held outside Duke Energy's state headquarters in St. Petersburg in recent years, for example, rarely attract more than a few dozen people who so far lack the resources to influence state policies.

Why did Duke Energy, an overly ambitious North Carolina power company, decide in 2011 to buy Progress Energy and thus enter the Florida (and Tampa Bay) market? Sure, Duke likes being in a state like Florida, which is expected to keep growing and where massive air-conditioning needs make power companies salivate.

But another unfortunate reason Duke pushed into this state is because it was widely known in the power industry that Florida was a patsy. A doormat. An easy mark. Duke saw power companies pushing their own agendas in Florida that favored shareholders over ratepayers, and it wanted a piece of that action.

Who can blame Duke? As a giant in the business of running monopoly utilities, Duke naturally prefers to operate where state governments say "Yes, sir!" while holding the door open and serving up a mint julep.

That's why, in recent PSC hearings, Duke and other big utilities have argued to gut energy conservation goals in Florida. It's so absurd an idea to reject conservation measures that other states run with backbones would laugh power companies out of their offices.

In Tallahassee, they are instead treated as royalty.

There was a time I'd end a column like this condemning the governance of Florida on energy matters as that of some two-bit third world nation.

Now I would never insult any Banana Republic by such a comparison.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

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