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FPL's solar power plan gets new life

TALLAHASSEE — In a last-ditch attempt to revive legislation that would let them control the market for solar power development in the state, Florida Power & Light has proposed a compromise that would allow state regulators to determine if they are entitled to raise rates to pay the costs of renewable energy plants.

The measure, which zipped through House and Senate committees, is intended to win the approval of Gov. Rick Scott, said Rep. Clay Ford, the chairman of the House Energy and Utilities Subcommittee.

The governor balked at provisions in the bill that now allow FPL — and any other investor-owned utility that wants to develop renewable energy — to automatically raise rates by 2 percent a year, said Fort, a Gulf Breeze Republican. A tea party group had complained about the plan.

"It was on life support,'' Ford told the Times/Herald. By drafting a rewrite to give approval for the rate increases to the Public Service Commission, "it's got a fresh life to it now,'' he said.

Ford said FPL sought the bill and is willing to make the investment needed to expand its solar energy generation, as long as it can get reimbursed from customers. The bill would allow FPL to hold a competitive advantage over other companies trying to get into Florida's potentially lucrative renewable energy market.

FPL is among the top five contributors to lawmakers. The company gave more than $4 million to legislative and statewide campaigns through November and, since January, has directed $255,000 to political party coffers, according to public campaign finance reports. The state's other large electric companies have not made passage of the bill a priority, Ford said.

Under the compromise proposal, FPL would have to show regulators it will develop its renewable energy programs in a "prudent cost-effective manner,'' its solar costs don't exceed other solar projects, and that the new power plants will help diversify its fuel mix and lessen state dependence on fossil fuels.

If those hurdles are met, as expected, the PSC would impose the rate increase — estimated at about $206.1 million a year for the next five years or $2.40 a month for the average customer using 1,200 kilowatt hours a month.

The bill has come under fire from agriculture interests, manufacturers and retailers who use large amounts of electrical power. Many of them are willing to shoulder the additional cost of jump-starting renewable energy development because of rising fossil fuel costs. But they also want to offset the need for future power plants by generating their own power through biomass plants or rooftop solar panels, and then sell any excess to others.

The FPL bill "corners the market and pushes out any opportunities for small-scale developers,'' said Andrew Walmsley, lobbyist for the Florida Farm Bureau. The farm bureau has joined with other small-energy producers to win support for legislation that would allow them to produce and distribute their own electrical power.

But the Juno Beach-based company has succeeded in persuading lawmakers to keep competitors at bay. It allows for 5 percent of the renewable energy produced to go to small-scale developers. The Senate version of the bill strips away an existing law that requires utilities companies to buy renewable energy generated by customers at a price that offsets the cost of the customer's electricity consumption.

That provision was quietly tucked into the Senate bill with no discussion by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, chairwoman of the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee. She could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Walmsley called it "a death blow." He blames the one-sided approach to the legislation on "all the contributions FPL has made.''

The coalition is torn about whether to support the bill going forward, Walmsley said. "It's better than what we have now — which is nothing. ... Most of these groups see some need for renewables, but with this legislation there is no guarantee that over the next five years the small-scale solar industry won't wither and die.

"We've tried to sit down with FPL and haven't gotten anywhere,'' he said. "If that had taken place, there wouldn't be as much hostility."

Ford countered that "what people don't understand is, this field is not easily made competitive."

He said that Benacquisto supports the compromise language — which will be heard on Thursday by the House State Affairs Committee. "Both of us are anxious to get a bill out," he said referring to Benacquisto.

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

FPL's solar power plan gets new life 04/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2011 7:17pm]
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