The Florida Legislature has never been serious about renewable energy, or conservation for that matter, and pending bills in the House and Senate would only modestly advance the discussion. However weak, though, the legislation is a start in a tough political and economic climate. And the House bill puts the state's public advocate on a better course to more forcefully protect the rights of ratepayers.
Both chambers are pushing legislative packages that track a series of recommendations state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam proposed earlier this year. The measures are fairly small-bore: Florida would revive about $16 million in annual tax credits for renewable energy projects that expired in 2010. The state also would require electric utilities to detail how renewable energy would factor into their long-range supply plans.
The legislation is another example of how Florida is losing ground to other states with its voluntary approach to jump-starting renewable energy. Dozens of states are further ahead in promoting renewables and conservation as alternatives to building new power plants and burning increased amounts of fossil fuels. Even with this legislation, Florida will not seriously spark the renewables market or put the electric utilities on a path toward more efficient energy production and cheaper rates. But the measures would lay a foundation for a more forward-looking governor and Legislature to build upon.
Toward that end, the House bill is stronger in charting a real role for renewable sources and conservation. It would do more to encourage investment and competition, build demand for electric vehicles and promote the diversification of the state's energy supply. The House also is more serious about exploring how conservation should factor into the state's long-term energy policy. This is an essential step toward establishing an honest public education campaign that could help Floridians realize how efficiency measures could save them money.
The House would also move the independent public counsel who represents ratepayers before the Public Service Commission from under the control of the Legislature to under the governor and Cabinet. The switch would not entirely remove the influence of politics on the job. But having the public counsel answer to four officials elected statewide — rather than to the 160-member Legislature — brings more clarity to the decisionmaking process. The governor and Cabinet would have a harder time yanking the public counsel's chain because they would be directly responsible for hiring and firing the official. The current arrangement isn't working; the Legislature acts as the Tallahassee branch of the state's power companies. Why not make the state's top leaders accountable for ensuring an independent public counsel protects the rights of ratepayers?
The renewables legislation is not ideal. But it sets the stage for Putnam to follow through with a more comprehensive approach, and he deserves credit for taking up an important issue that too many others won't touch. This is probably the limit of what's possible with this Legislature, and lawmakers should take these modest steps and approve the legislation.