Florida's renewable energy plan has three distinct purposes: reduce the state's reliance on fossil fuels, diversify the energy supply and put the state on the path toward more sustainable resources. But the proposed strategy to get there, which goes to the Public Service Commission this week, falls short.
The commission meets Friday to consider again targets for renewable energy in Florida. Gov. Charlie Crist, in a series of executive orders in 2007, called for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and to generate up to 20 percent of its power needs from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Crist has proposed reaching the 20 percent target by 2020. But the commission staff has come nowhere close to those goals. Last fall, it recommended that renewables make up 5 percent of the state's power resources by 2017, 10 percent by 2025 and 15 percent by 2033. The state would not meet the governor's goal for 2020 until 2041. That is not fast enough to match technology or the political momentum.
In fairness, the commission has two competing interests to balance. The targets it sets must be high enough to encourage the private sector to invest the money necessary to get this young industry off the ground. At the same time, those costs, which ultimately would be passed onto consumers, must be reasonable enough for ratepayers to accept. But the PSC staff's proposal is far short of what's doable. Its latest proposal, to boost the 5 percent target for 2017 to 6 percent, is insignificant. The staff raised the target only after a consultant for the state discovered that Florida derived more now from renewables — about 4.4 percent — than earlier thought. The higher target, in other words, was found money.
Whether Crist's 20 percent goal is the magic number is not the issue. The proposed rules include a number of opt-outs that allow power companies to fall short of meeting the targets — whatever they ultimately are — for financial and other reasons. But the targets should be closer to Crist's goal of 20 percent by 2020 than the staff's target of half that by 2025. The commission should also ensure that utilities are encouraged to spend enough on renewable energy to prime the industry for research and capital investment. The current proposal calls for capping those expenses at 2 percent of a utility's annual expenses, about half the national average.
The staff proposal also could include nuclear energy as a source for meeting the renewable targets, which Florida Power & Light strongly supports. That is not appropriate. Nuclear has a role in Florida. But there are ways to promote nuclear, and they do not require hitching it to the renewable energy effort. That is why nuclear was not included in the state law that got this effort going. The PSC has several weeks to finalize the numbers. What it needs to show Friday is the commitment to a plan that is both aggressive but achievable. The incoming Obama administration has echoed the governor's targets and vowed to spend billions on renewable projects across the country. It is time Florida took a place in line.