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Lack of state leadership kills TECO's big solar plant project

"I applaud TECO and Energy 5.0 on this exciting partnership that moves Florida closer to our goal of increasing energy diversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, March 2009, on a joint deal to produce electricity from a proposed solar panel facility in Polk County.

It seemed a marriage made in renewable heaven.

In an energy deal cut last year that promised to inject larger-scale solar power into the Tampa Bay area for the first time, TECO Energy agreed to buy electricity from a proposed Polk County plant for the next 25 years. TECO's partner, Energy 5.0 of West Palm Beach, would build and run the plant, a 25-megawatt solar photovoltaic generating station.

Now the much-anticipated deal is dead, a significant blow to renewable energy in the, ahem, Sunshine State.

The solar deal fell victim to a void in state leadership. The Florida Legislature in 2009, and again in a 2010 session that at best can be called chaotic, failed to deliver on renewable energy legislation. The measure would have required (and, yes, subsidized) major electric utilities to diversify their sources of electricity by using such renewable energy sources as solar.

And where was Crist, who entered the governor's office so gung-ho over a broad alternative energy future? Solar and other renewable power somehow fell out of his vocabulary now that he is preoccupied with his independent run for the U.S. Senate.

Energy 5.0 CEO Bud Cherry says that lack of any energy policy in Florida killed the solar project.

"It is a loss for Florida and Floridians and sends a pretty negative message to the rest of the renewable community what you can expect in Florida," Cherry says.

TECO, Tampa Electric's parent, agrees and offers another reason: The project was dropped because of the recession and an economic climate in which customers were especially eager not to pay higher rates, says utility spokesman Rick Morera.

There's much more at stake here than losing one solar deal. A successful TECO-Energy 5.0 project would have yielded valuable solar experience and the chance to work on ways to reduce the cost of solar power as a source for electricity. It also could have helped jump-start a very modest solar industry in the state in an era of leaner energy choices.

As oil gushes out of control from the BP gulf oil spill, electric utilities find themselves squeezed in their choice of energy to generate electricity. If renewables lack state support, new coal plants are dead on arrival because of air-quality concerns. Oil is out. Even nuclear power, a comeback industry, suffers cost and safety setbacks.

That leaves essentially one source of fuel to handle the bulk of electricity-generation growth in Florida: natural gas. But relying on just one fuel, with its potential for volatile prices, is economically dangerous and just bad policy.

TECO and Energy 5.0 pitched their solar project multiple times to the Florida Public Service Commission.

The PSC at first approved the deal in December, then rejected it earlier this year. Why? The PSC claims it could not okay any deal that cost more than another conventional power plant.

Lobbying firm Gray Robinson also pushed the solar project, urging Tallahassee lawmakers to adopt an energy policy to make the deal work.

Nothing happened.

"It looked like we were heading toward an unhappy ending," Cherry says. The two companies agreed to pull the plug on the deal, he says, "sooner than later."

For now, Energy 5.0 will pursue solar projects in other states, where energy policies are better defined.

Without clear rules to help electric utilities tap renewable sources for electricity, companies like TECO have no incentive to commit to what remains a more expensive source of generation.

If utilities do not expand into renewable energy sources to gain experience and efficiencies, we'll be in deeper trouble later when natural gas, coal or oil become prohibitively expensive.

Hello, state leadership: Anybody home?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Lack of state leadership kills TECO's big solar plant project 06/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 3, 2010 8:52am]
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