Two years ago, the Sunshine State seemed poised to assume its natural role as a national leader in renewable energy. ¶ Then-Gov. Charlie Crist touted a plan for 20 percent of the energy generated in the state to come from renewable sources such as solar by 2020. ¶ After wide praise, the effort died in the 2009 Legislative session — and every year since. ¶ Now, instead of emerging as a leader, Florida lags behind 29 other states — including such places as New Jersey — in developing a renewable energy policy.
"Florida should lead the way," Crist said in a recent interview. "It's going to take leadership. It always takes leadership."
Actually, the problem is bigger than that.
Put simply, renewable energy sources like solar cannot yet compete on cost with sources like coal, natural gas and nuclear. So, if you want someone to build a solar power plant in Florida, ratepayers will have to subsidize its operation.
When states want to push solar and other forms of renewable energy, they create what are called renewable energy portfolio standards, which go by the acronym RPS.
RPS defines the subsidy that a solar plant, for instance, would get for the power it generates, and is designed to allow the plant to produce enough revenue to stay in business.
That raises the overall cost of power. And that's why Florida lawmakers, in the midst of the Great Recession, have held up Crist's plan.
Of course, there's another side to the issue. And the Tampa Bay area has a stake in the outcome.
Sooner or later, the argument goes, Florida and the rest of the nation will have to embrace renewable energy to cut dependence on foreign oil. If Florida waits till later, the renewable energy industry argues, it will lose jobs and the highly skilled college graduates who would go to states with advanced solar and other technologies.
"I think a renewal energy portfolio standard is going to be essential for there ever to be a real push for renewables in the state, whether its solar, biomass or other renewable," said Mario Farias.
Farias represents a group of German businesses looking to make St. Petersburg a hub for solar energy. The group proposes to open a manufacturing plant in St. Petersburg that would employ 160 people and a solar electricity generation plant that would add 100 more jobs.
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Unlike Florida, North Carolina has a renewable energy policy. Progress Energy operates in both states. Right now, about 2 percent of the energy generated in each state comes from renewable sources.
But North Carolina law requires Progress and other utilities to begin producing more power from renewable sources. Progress Energy is exploring solar, wind, biowaste and other options to produce power from renewable sources. By 2012, companies have to get 3.5 percent of all retail sales from renewables. The requirement jumps to 12.5 percent by 2021.
Even with that goal, North Carolina will trail big states like California and Minnesota, each of which already gets 13 percent of its power from renewables.
In North Carolina, Progress has to pay solar energy companies about 18 cents per kilowatt to buy electricity. In Florida, state regulations allow Progress to pay 5 to 6 cents.
The costs of solar power have come down in recent years. But it is still expensive compared to the alternatives.
Apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult and subject to regional differences. But the U.S. Energy Information Administration did a comparison of various hypothetical plants going into operation in 2016.
The findings, listed in cost per kilowatt hour, were:
Solar: 21 cents.
Coal: 9 to 14 cents.
Nuclear: 11 cents.
Natural gas: 6 to 12 cents.
Solar's high cost killed Crist's effort to create a renewable energy program for Florida.
"The members (of the Legislature) did not want to put it on the ratepayers at this time," said Matthew M. Carter II, staff director for the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee. "They thought it was a little too much."
A legislative staff analysis looked at the impact of a proposed requirement that utilities spend 2 percent of their revenues on renewable energy. It showed Progress Energy ratepayers would see about $2.80 added to their bills each month based on 1,000 kilowatt hours of usage, while TECO Energy customers would pay an additional $2.20.
That would be easier for Progress Energy customers to swallow if they weren't already paying an average of $5.53 a month for a nuclear plant not yet under construction in Levy County.
North Carolina, the headquarters of Progress Energy and its merger partner, Duke Energy, does not allow advance fees for nuclear plant construction.
Utilities prefer nuclear power over solar and some other renewable sources because nuclear reactors produce more energy at lower costs.
Nuclear reactors can run 24 hours a day. Solar power, which has no large storage system as of yet, is limited to daylight hours. Wind-generated electricity is depended on the whims of nature.
Progress Energy has been working with the University of South Florida to develop a battery storage system for solar energy, but the utility says solar simply is not yet efficient enough to be a primary electricity generator.
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Some utilities have sought to have nuclear operations included in whatever renewable energy portfolio the state crafts.
When Crist pushed his plan of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, FPL, the state's largest utility, proposed to have new nuclear plants constructed after 2006 included — an unusual power source to include in a renewable energy portfolio standard. But it's an example of the efforts Florida utilities have used to resist the standard.
"Of the 29 states with standards, only one would allow nuclear," said Glen Andersen, energy program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "That is Ohio. They have more of a clean energy standard" rather than a renewable standard.
Meanwhile, FPL and Progress Energy have been working on renewable projects.
FPL is the largest solar electric power generator in the state. Even so, the capacity of FPL's three sites make up less than 1 percent of the utility's electric output.
FPL customers pay an extra quarter a month for the solar operation.
Progress Energy has contracted with Blue Chip Energy to buy electricity from the solar power generation company, which is building a 200-acre, 40-megawatt solar farm in Lake County that will power about 8,000 homes. The first phase of 10 megawatts is expected to be completed in 2012. The full project will be the first large-scale source of electricity Progress Energy Florida will tap, but it, too, will generate less than 1 percent of Progress Energy's total electric capacity.
Progress also has contracts that would add 10 times the amount of solar electricity as the Lake County solar farm, but because of cost, it is unclear when those projects will be developed.
If Florida were to match the RPS subsidy North Carolina requires, it would help attract private investment in renewable energy.
An 18-cent RPS requirement would be enough to ensure the German group would build a large solar farm in St. Petersburg, Farias said, adding:
"That's the right pricing in their minds."
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.