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FPL put years of work, money into solar energy legislation it will largely benefit from

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's largest electric utilities will be allowed to raise customer rates by as much as $2 a month and control the solar energy market in the state — all without having to get approval from regulators under two bills that easily moved this week through House and Senate committees.

The company that stands to benefit the most, Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light, has been aggressively lobbying for passage of the bill for two years. It would allow the company to generate more than half of the renewable energy allowed under the rate increase and charge customers using 1,200 kilowatt hours $2.42 a month more for the next five years.

Since 2009, FPL and its affiliates have spent at least $4 million on campaign contributions to legislators and candidates for governor, according to campaign finance reports. It created Citizens for Clean Energy, a nonprofit renewable energy coalition to push the issue. It has hired 30 lobbyists, including the former head of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation Mike Sole, at a salary and benefits package of more than $350,000, to work legislators and earn support.

And it has earned the allegiance among the most important lawmakers in Tallahassee: House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

Haridopolos hosted a renewable energy summit last summer organized and financed by Citizens for Clean Energy. The coalition is headed by Krissy Martinez, who is the daughter of FPL's director of renewable development, Buck Martinez.

To Armando Olivera, FPL's chief executive, the legislation that allows them to charge customers $260 million a year in increased rates to pay for renewable energy production is long overdue and "highly politicized."

After FPL tried and failed to get similar legislation passed in the last two years to allow it to expand its solar energy program, it regrouped this year and put its efforts behind a narrowly-focused bill to give it and the state's four other large utility companies the exclusive right to develop solar energy projects in the state.

"We are probably the most gung ho for this technology in the state of Florida,'' Olivera told the Miami Herald editorial board in February. "We came close last time. Let's see how the politics wind up on this.''

But to competing interests, such as small-scale solar energy developers, they feel the political deck is stacked against them.

"You and I pay for those 30 lobbyists,'' said Bill Johnson, president of the Sarasota-based solar panel installer Brilliant Harvest. "We are paying for them to protect their turf and keep competition out."

Johnson and a coalition of companies that want to see the expansion of solar power in Florida, say that the refusal of the state's utility giants to allow for distributed generation — the ability of homeowners and commercial companies who produce excess electricity to sell it back to the electricity grid at a competitive price — is stifling competition.

"FPL sees distributed generation as a competitive threat to its business model, just like Ma Bell in the 1980s saw telecommunications companies as a threat to them,'' Johnson said.

The House bill sponsor, Rep. Clay Ford, R-Pensacola, defended the bill's attempt to keep competitors to FPL and others at bay. He opposed an amendment to open solar generation to competition at the House Energy and Utilities Subcommittee meeting on Tuesday and its sponsor, Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, withdrew it.

"If we let them sell to other people, then they're unregulated and that's questionable,'' he said. "The increased production of large-scale solar will lower the price of small-scale solar.''

FPL's position on the issue in Florida strikes Monica Kennedy of Elite Solar Services in Sarasota as "hypocrisy,'' she said. "We're mad as hell."

She noted that while FPL is the largest producer of renewable energy in Canada and other states. "When there is a free market, FPL is there,'' she said. "They just don't want it here. We need a free market to keep them in check."

Ford said he is confident that this may be the year the bill passes. "I don't want to give the impression this is a bill for the largest utilities,'' he said. "But it's time we get this industry moving in Florida."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

FPL put years of work, money into solar energy legislation it will largely benefit from 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 7:18pm]
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