After two years of study, the Public Service Commission staff recommends leaving energy conservation targets in Florida to the whim of the very utilities in the business of selling electricity. If the staff were so intent on making a mockery of conservation, there was no need to waste so much time and effort. The staff proposal would move Florida in the opposite direction of every state looking to curb energy consumption, cut emissions of global-warming greenhouse gases and capitalize on new jobs and investment created by clean-energy technologies. The PSC should reject the staff proposal when it meets Tuesday and put a serious plan on the table.
Even for a regulator that often acts like a branch office for the power industry, the PSC proposal is pathetically weak. Environmental groups wanted the savings through efficiencies to equal 1 percent of a utility's annual sales. Utilities argued that the 1 percent figure was arbitrary and that an aggressive efficiency target would make power more expensive for consumers. The PSC staff recommended that the utilities be left to continue their current efforts until 2014, and that new targets be considered then. That means Florida will lose six to eight times the energy it could have saved under a more aggressive schedule.
Energy efficiency does cost money, but the PSC needs to balance the benefits of conservation with the costs. Lowering demand could cause utilities to request an increase in their rates to pay for more power plants and increased fuel costs. But there was no balancing here. The staff pointed time and time again to the weak economy to justify relieving the utilities of any meaningful effort to encourage conservation. They acknowledged that even small steps, such as installing more efficient lighting, deliver among the biggest bang for consumers. But they called for no new incentives for these programs, urging more "public information" instead. It also ruled out new incentives beyond a pilot project to offset the costs of solar water heaters.
A PSC report in February noted that Florida utilities have largely met their conservation targets since the efficiency law was enacted in 1980. Five of the seven utilities covered by the law met or surpassed their goals in 2007. So why not raise the bar if the utilities are already clearing it? That is the purpose behind goal-setting, anyway — to move behavior in the right direction. Florida should not stand on the sidelines as billions of federal stimulus dollars go for clean-energy and efficiency projects.
The PSC needs to insist on meaningful conservation targets when it meets Tuesday. There will be a cost to greater energy efficiency, but the cost of doing nothing beyond the status quo will be even greater in the long run.