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Momentum for renewable-energy legislation lacking

TALLAHASSEE — In the last legislative session before his death, state Sen. Jim King tirelessly pushed for an energy compromise to reduce the amount of dirty fuel the state uses to produce electricity.

He called it "visionary'' and predicted it would spawn jobs in the growing alternative fuel industry. It passed in the Senate 37-1, but died in the House.

This year, environmentalists and green companies are urging the revival of the Jacksonville senator's vision from 2009. But with four weeks left in the legislative session, the prospects have vanished for a renewable energy standard that would force the state to clean up the way it produces power.

The momentum instead is with ideas that would turn back the clock two years, to the days before the green energy movement in Florida gained strength.

"It's going to be a tough year to get anything out of the House on energy," said Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican who is working on a compromise this year.

Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican and the House's designated speaker next year, is on a crusade for oil and gas exploration 3 to 10 miles off Florida's coast. He is also pushing for development of wind, biomass, solar and nuclear fuels in Florida.

Cannon believes the most cost-efficient energy policy would support domestic development of oil and gas along with more nuclear power plants and development of the market for alternative fuels.

But because the Senate won't pass Cannon's oil-drilling plan this year, the chances for a strong renewable energy bill this session are slight, Bennett said. That frustrates environmentalists and clean energy advocates.

"All other states are charging ahead and building wind or biomass or solar sectors," said Kathy Baughman McLeod, a member of the governor's Energy and Climate Commission. "We talk about Florida being the Sunshine State and using the sunshine for growing our economy, but we're running out of time to match what the industry needs in order to build the market."

Most clean energy proponents disagree with Cannon and other House Republicans. They argue the best way to wean the state off of dirty fuels is to pump up the alternative energy market. They want to require the state's electricity giants to reduce demand and use the savings to offset the higher cost of alternative fuels.

"We are working to change utility regulation so that they can be rewarded for being more efficient," said Susan Glickman, lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "But right now, utilities make money by building new power plants even when we don't need them."

This week, the House will unveil a bill that is expected to move one step forward and two steps back. It would allow the state's electricity companies to raise customer bills to build solar power plants without having to demonstrate a need. But it also would remove two other recent changes in energy regulation:

• A 2009 requirement by the Public Service Commission, the state's utility regulator, that Florida's utility giants reduce energy consumption by rewarding customers who buy solar water heaters, large energy-efficient appliances and reduce electricity use.

• A 2008 law that requires the PSC to develop a renewable energy standard.

It's a clash of ideology. Proponents of renewable energy argue that if Florida requires utility companies to use fewer fossil fuels, the cost for alternatives will fall, increasing demand for cleaner energy.

Republican legislators and utility companies, often among the largest political donors, argue otherwise. Lawmakers worry that the cost of building and running renewable energy plants is too much for electricity customers in a recession.

And Florida's utility giants say they'll develop renewable energy only if they can charge customers for plant construction and operation — more costly than operating existing fossil fuel plants.

A study commissioned by the Energy and Climate Commission found that one reason it's cheaper for power companies to burn fossil fuels is because utilities receive federal subsidies for oil and gas. Also, the companies have been allowed to charge customers for the full cost of the plants and pass along fuel price increases. Between 2001 and 2006, the state's average electricity customer saw fuel costs rise 41 percent.

In 2008, the Legislature authorized Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light to charge customers for the construction of nuclear power plants in Florida — even if the companies don't go forward with the plans. The PSC subsequently authorized Progress to increase the average customer bill $10.71 a month to pay for the plants, a charge that is expected to increase to $44.86 by 2016.

At Gov. Charlie Crist's urging, lawmakers in 2008 also authorized solar power development and gave power companies permission to raise customer bills to pay for it.

Shortly after, FPL, the Juno Beach-based utility giant, applied to build plants in Martin and DeSoto counties as well as Arcadia that used up all the solar generation authorized by lawmakers.

It's not exactly what the environmentalists envisioned.

"Remember, we're trying to build a market for renewable energy in Florida," Glickman, said. "You don't build a market when everything is controlled by big utilities."

She worries the same thing will happen this year. Crist is supportive of an FPL push to have the House bill include 700 megawatts of additional solar power generation over three years, including a small amount of generation from rooftop solar panels.

Among the winners would be Babcock Ranch in Collier County, a planned community that is partnering with FPL to become the first solar-powered city in the world.

Bennett has introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Neither bill would require PSC permission.

Glickman and others see the debate as tilted in favor of utilities.

"The question nobody is asking is do they really need this added capacity?" Glickman asks. "Would we be better off using the money to invest in solar water heaters and conservation?"

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

Momentum for renewable-energy legislation lacking 04/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 2, 2010 10:43pm]
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