Florida ranks among the sunniest and hottest states in the country. But when it comes to taking advantage of one of its most obvious sources of energy, the state lags well behind far more overcast places such as Massachusetts, Ohio, New York and New Jersey, which leads the nation in developing a thriving solar power industry. That's embarrassing testimony to Florida's myopic refusal to create a coherent, renewable clean energy policy while continuing to prop up costly and speculative nuclear power plants at the expense of utility customers. Some state lawmakers disingenuously argue solar power is problematic because Florida's intermittent cloud cover is too disruptive to energy generation. But the only cloud preventing robust solar energy development in Florida is the fog of hypocrisy hanging over Tallahassee.
The Tampa Bay Times' Ivan Penn recently reported Florida ranks 14th nationally in the installation of solar energy systems. That means lost opportunities, lost jobs and lost power. By contrast, in only the first quarter of 2012, No. 1 New Jersey installed 173.8 megawatts of solar capacity. At that rate, by the end of the year New Jersey will have created enough solar power-generated electricity as a midsized nuclear reactor. Florida's solar output for the same period is a paltry 2.8 megawatts.
In 2006, Gov. Charlie Crist had the foresight to advocate for an energy policy that would have required 20 percent of the state's energy needs to come from renewable sources. That effort fizzled, largely on the basis of the dishonest "cloud" argument. Yet incoming Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, believes it's a bad idea to have renewable energy standards since solar and wind energy would require subsidies to entice corporations to invest in the technology. Subsidies, Weatheford said, are "essentially a tax." But providing incentives for renewable energy resources is no different than the tax breaks the state routinely hands out in the name of job creation — and it could be a lot more beneficial in the long run.
At the moment, only Florida Power & Light has developed a solar power program with the help of modest state incentives. But that effort has resulted in creating less than 1 percent of FP&L's total power output.
While ignoring the long-term value of renewable energy, Florida's Public Service Commission continues to permit Progress Energy to collect fees from its customers to pay for costs associated with the company's crippled, offline Crystal River nuclear power plant and the long-delayed proposed $24 billion Levy County nuclear plant that might never be built.
What is the better long-term investment? Reliable renewable energy? Or billions of dollars in de facto taxes wasted on shuttered and speculative nuclear power plants with not a watt of electricity generated? Don't expect to find the answer in the haze enshrouding Tallahassee. Florida needs a smart renewable energy policy that recognizes the additional costs are worth the long-term benefits.