Last summer, Gov. Charlie Crist thrust Florida into the forefront of states promising to act on global warming. He called for a cut in greenhouse gas emissions and more energy efficiency. He set an ambitious goal — some of his fellow Republicans said too ambitious — to generate 20 percent of the state's electricity from renewable fuels, particularly solar. He followed up by signing executive orders to implement those pledges and said the state's efforts "begin here."
Now it is up to the Legislature to take the next step, and it has responded with two comprehensive energy bills that more or less advance Crist's agenda. Two important initiatives would move forward in House and Senate proposals that differ some: to produce more renewable energy and to initiate a cap-and-trade program that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Public Service Commission is already off to a good start on rules to require a higher percentage of the state's electricity to come from renewable fuels than the less than 3 percent being generated now. Both bills would allow the PSC to finish its work without unnecessary interference or restrictions. It is hard to say when the state might reach Crist's ambitious 20 percent goal, but we won't know until we require utility companies to try harder.
Both bills direct the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop a cap-and-trade program, which would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and provide a market-based system for emitters to reach those goals. While the program won't be ready before 2010, the effort has momentum, said DEP Secretary Mike Sole.
Other provisions in the legislation promise needed reform. The work now done by a number of agencies would be consolidated in a new Florida Energy and Climate Commission reporting to the governor. Sole says such a commission could streamline the administration of energy policy.
Proposals to promote energy savings are less impressive. The surest and quickest way to cut back on electricity consumption and emissions is to use less in the first place — as with incentive programs for energy-efficient appliances and lighting. The Senate bill would set a 20 percent savings requirement on utilities, but only on future energy growth. The House bill contains no specific savings. Even under the Senate version, the efficiency gained would be minimal because it fails to address current wasteful practices. Energy efficiency gains proposed for the Florida building code, however, would be an improvement.
The legislation shows a strong preference for meeting the state's future power needs with more nuclear reactors. A law that already allows utilities to charge consumers in advance for reactor construction would be expanded to new transmission lines, too. While an expansion of nuclear power evokes less public opposition than it used to, it is still an expensive and potentially risky investment that needs to be thought through carefully.
One question left unanswered by the complex legislation: Is Florida moving fast enough and far enough considering the growing threat of climate change? Senators should consider that as they begin debate on the legislation today.
Even then, it will be difficult to give an enthusiastic affirmation until the House and Senate reconcile their differences and the strength of the legislation becomes clearer. One hopeful sign is that powerful utility interests haven't significantly weakened Crist's efforts. But the heavy lifting is just beginning as the end of the legislative session nears.