The Florida Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates the state's big power companies, is now finally at full strength. That should be good news for electricity customers because there has been little continuity at this agency over the last two years. Two previously appointed commissioners went unconfirmed by the Florida Senate, and two others were not invited back by the Legislature's nominating committee.
Now that all five commissioners sit in confirmed seats, there is an opportunity to create a lasting legacy by building on a commission decision in 2009 that set more meaningful energy conservation goals for the state's largest power companies.
Yet, the commission has again delayed approval of plans filed by Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light, the state's biggest power companies, to meet conservation goals established in the 2009 targets. That hurts more than half the state's electricity customers who want to reduce energy use and save money on their bills, yet are deprived of the most effective means to do so. Floridians look to utility-sponsored efficiency programs to help them slash energy use and lower electricity bills. The new commission should quickly move to finally approve plans that implement the conservation goals.
Florida must graduate to state-of-the-art energy efficiency measures that are most effective in helping customers reduce their energy use and save money on their bills, now and in the future — that's especially important for fixed-income and low-income customers. It is additionally important because energy efficiency is the lowest-cost resource available to utilities to meet electricity demand. Efficiency programs can meet that demand at a fraction of the cost of building costly power plants. These are just a few reasons why the wider use of well designed energy efficiency programs should be a priority.
Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders have called for cost reductions for Florida businesses and residents. The more robust conservation goals set by the commission in 2009 were a good start toward helping Floridians slash their energy costs. That decision must now be fully implemented with sound, detailed programs.
We can do so much more. As one example, the commission should set conservation goals that equate to at least 1 percent of electricity demand annually for the big power companies. This would place Florida's utilities on par with leading utilities in other states.
Florida could significantly scale up its efforts and join states leading the nation in efficiency. Leading utilities capture several times more energy savings than Florida's big power companies — even with the new goals. The commission and the Legislature have set public policy that can guide Florida to the next level. Their oversight is necessary to remove remaining barriers.
One such barrier is the practice by the state's largest utilities that eliminates public access to the lowest cost energy efficiency programs. The utilities argue that there is ready access to the lowest cost measures, and that residential and commercial customers will use them without any utility incentive. In reality, these programs aren't being meaningfully adopted — leaving a lot of energy savings on the table at a time when every energy dollar counts for consumers.
Another obstacle is the state's disjointed utility planning process, which inhibits customer/stakeholder participation in long-term energy planning. Current utility regulation in Florida favors building new power plants over lower-cost resources like energy efficiency, thus enriching big power companies who earn a profit on building power plants. This process gives undue weight to building new plants but is often resistant to helping customers use less energy. Having an open and transparent utility resource planning process would be a step in the right direction by placing energy efficiency on the demand side on an equal footing with new supply side resources like power plants.
Last, customers would be well served if the commission would review and set conservation goals more frequently than the current five-year time frame. With rapid technological advances, new efficiency products and services emerge every year, creating tremendous economic opportunities.
Approvals of legally compliant conservation plans for Progress Energy and FPL are but a few of the broader energy issues, including efficiency, that the commission will have on its plate in the coming years — an exceptionally critical time that finds Florida's energy policy at a virtual standstill.
We must fill the leadership vacuum in state energy policy quickly. The Florida Public Service Commission was once a strong, independent repository for energy policy; it can be again. But it can only do so by overcoming its recent challenges with transparent, inclusive deliberations that fully examine the state's needs — accounting for the long-term benefits and true costs of all energy options.
E. Leon Jacobs Jr. served on the Florida Public Service Commission from 1998 to 2002 and was chairman in 2001. He is a board member for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a consultant with the National Resources Defense Council.