Thousands of the Sunshine State's clean energy jobs at risk

A nonpartisan study says thousands will be out of work if utilities get to reduce energy-savings goals.
Florida ranks No. 3 in the nation for solar energy potential and could generate 25 times its current electricity needs with clean, renewable sources. [Times files (2010)]
Florida ranks No. 3 in the nation for solar energy potential and could generate 25 times its current electricity needs with clean, renewable sources. [Times files (2010)]
Published October 8 2014

Tens of thousands of Florida's clean energy jobs could be at risk if state regulators approve proposals by investor-owned utilities to gut their energy savings goals.

A new report set for release today, dubbed "Clean Jobs Florida," found that Florida employs about 75,000 in the energy efficiency field, which ranges from LED bulbs to solar hot water heaters. That could make the clean energy sector vulnerable if cuts are approved.

While the report calls for the state to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts, Florida appears poised to retreat from what a growing number of states are embracing.

The report, released by the nonpartisan Environmental Entrepreneurs, Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy and the Florida chapter of the Energy Services Coalition, purports to be the first "jobs census of its kind that focuses on Florida's clean energy businesses." It was supported by environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Researchers reviewed surveys from 832 Florida businesses that responded to telephone calls and e-mails to more than 14,000 businesses. Researchers supplemented those surveys with industry lists of 973 known clean energy firms and identified 204 more companies not previously known as clean energy businesses. The survey has a margin of error of about 3.3 percent.

The report concludes there are 130,000 clean energy jobs, about 75,000 in energy efficiency.

But Florida, the report notes, falls short of other Southern states such as North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, which have government-backed efforts to support clean energy.

Florida ranks No. 3 in the nation for solar potential and could generate 25 times its electricity needs with clean, renewable sources. That could save homeowners and businesses billions of dollars, the report states.

But the Sunshine State trails such states as North Carolina and Georgia in efforts to develop solar. Florida ranks No. 18 in the nation for solar electricity generation, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

"The potential is there for clean energy if the state would give it a fighting chance," said Bob Keefe, executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group of business leaders and investors that was a lead sponsor of the study.

Florida's investor-owned utilities see it differently. They have told state regulators that energy efficiency programs are more expensive than generating electricity at one of their plants.

"There are costs to conserving energy," Tampa Electric's Cherie Jacobs said. "We can't ask customers to conserve more energy through programs that aren't cost effective."

As such, the investor-owned utilities — Tampa Electric, Duke Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light — want to cut their energy efficiency goals by more than 90 percent.

Utilities collect money from ratepayers through their bills to pay for energy efficiency measures, including rebates or giveaway programs. Some programs are mandated by law, such as free home energy checks.

In November, state regulators will decide whether to approve the utilities' proposal to reduce their energy savings goals.

Instead of the energy efficiency measures they say have become too costly, the utilities favor building power plants that they control. Even when the projects are solar power plants or other renewable energy sources, the utilities want to build and operate them rather than see individual customers installing solar panels on the roofs of their homes or businesses.

Tampa Electric, for instance, recently announced plans for the largest solar array in the Tampa Bay area at Tampa International Airport. And Duke Energy is seeking land in Pinellas County for a solar farm.

The report says more widespread use of solar by homeowners and businesses and increased energy efficiency programs would benefit Floridians more.

Reducing pollutants will increasingly become important to the state over the next two years as the federal Clean Power Plan takes effect. The plan is designed to reduce carbon pollution by 30 percent by 2030.

The report urges Florida leaders to back steps taken by other states that encourage energy efficiency and more solar power.

"Incentives are clearly important to clean energy businesses," the report states. "And employers were vocal about their frustrations with a lack of policies and engagement for driving adoption of clean energy goods and services."

Contact Ivan Penn at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.

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