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Utility panel launches study of energy needs

Lobbyists for state utilities and out-of-state energy providers line up to ensure their voices are heard in the debate.

A new commission created to look at the state's future energy needs began work Wednesday by taking a look at where the electricity is generated.

Gov. Jeb Bush urged the 17-member commission to "look over the horizon" and determine what the state needs to do to keep the lights on in a growing state.

"If we do nothing, we'll be unable to meet demands," Bush said. "In some public policy areas, we can make quick adjustments to meet needs, but in this case it takes a long time to build capacity."

Bush said he's taken some heat for appointing a commission made up of people without a vested interest in the fight to produce energy.

Instead, he pulled together people who don't work for the state's major utilities. Walter Revell, former secretary of the Department of Transportation and chief executive of a South Florida engineering company, is chairman of the Energy 2020 Study Commission.

Bush created the commission at the request of state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, after legislators gave up on efforts to pass a bill that would have allowed independent power plants to be built in Florida.

The bill was opposed by the state's big power companies, which are fighting to keep so-called "merchant"plants out of the state.

Earlier this year, Lee, who is a member of the new commission, said he decided it was impossible to pass a bill that would not be heavily impacted by power company lobbyists.

On Wednesday, the lobbyists for power plants and outside companies that want to build in Florida were wall-to-wall in a Senate hearing room where the new commission met. Revell said the lobbyists are deluging commission members with position papers and information.

Bush urged the commission to "push the envelope out" and consider innovative policies. He also told them to keep an eye out for the impact that an energy policy will have on the state's environment.

The commission has 15 months to come up with a report that will predict electricity and natural gas needs and take a look at deregulation, conservation and the costs that will have to be picked up by taxpayers, consumers and energy providers.

Utilities are highly regulated monopolies that are assigned basic service areas, but there is pressure to deregulate the industry and allow competition to determine service.

The commission is scheduled to present a final report outlining the state's needs for the coming 20 years by Dec. 1, 2001.