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Guest Column
Energy preemption legislation would create economic peril for Floridians | Column
By advocating energy preemption policies, legislative leaders are blocking customer choice.
Covered solar panel parking was built at the new St. Pete Pier district. The panels power the Pier district lighting.
Covered solar panel parking was built at the new St. Pete Pier district. The panels power the Pier district lighting. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Apr. 17
Updated Apr. 17

A pair of energy preemption bills before the Florida Legislature could create economic peril while raising costs for Florida’s families and businesses.

The legislation — SB 1128 and HB 919 — would create a domino effect of unintended consequences and erase positive steps that local leaders take toward diversifying a community’s energy sources.

That’s a big deal in Florida because the state is currently among the least diversified in the country for electricity generation. About 70 percent of the electricity to power our homes and businesses comes from burning gas — more than twice the national average. Some utilities, like Tampa Electric Company (TECO), are even planning to increase their use of gas generation to nearly 85 percent in the coming years.

Katie Chiles Ottenweller
Katie Chiles Ottenweller [ LIV BERGER | Provided ]

Unfortunately, natural gas is also quite volatile, both in its explosive nature when used improperly and in its overall cost. Just recently, Florida’s largest utility provider Florida Power & Light (FPL) made headlines with news that it would be increasing customer bills by more than $300 million to cover the rising costs of fuel.

And that’s nothing new.

In 2006, in the wake of rising global prices compounded by supply disruptions caused by hurricanes, state regulators approved FPL’s request to increase customer bills by 19 percent or more. At least one more recent scenario from the U.S. Energy Information Administration outlined a possibility that gas prices could double over the next decade. If that nightmare scenario became a reality, it would result in an average increase of $360 per year on every Floridians’ electric bill.

So why are state legislators pursuing policies that would eliminate options available to local communities? Unsurprisingly, the legislation is backed by the Florida Natural Gas Association. Though only a couple of pages long, it could ultimately erase many local ordinances and introduce new challenges to the growing number of Florida cities that are pursuing clean energy goals.

Mindful of the adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” many local officials are turning their attention to energy diversification as a way to protect their residents from volatile fuel costs while also making their communities more resilient.

Beyond that, it also makes financial sense.

While gas prices are rising, the cost of solar technology has dropped significantly. With solar, we create jobs that can’t be outsourced and leverage the benefits of an unlimited and cost-effective energy source. According to a recent report from Vote Solar, Florida’s utility providers send more than $5 billion out of state every year by constantly purchasing gas. Why not keep those dollars in state?

This debate isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s gone on for decades, but sadly has seen little improvement.

Back in 2005, then-Gov. Jeb Bush sounded the alarm about Florida’s lack of energy diversification. The Tampa Bay Times reported that the Republican governor said the state “must stop relying so heavily on costly natural gas for generating its electricity.” He was right then and, at that time Florida’s dependence on gas was much lower than it is now.

We never know what will come next to disrupt our energy supply. With blizzards in Texas and hurricanes in Florida, and international trade wars and even a massive ship stuck in a canal halting global shipping, anything is possible.

But there is one thing we do know: Preventing local leaders from pursuing clean energy goals blocks them from managing future price risks, especially when the state has done little to reduce utility companies’ insatiable appetite for more gas plants.

By advocating energy preemption policies, legislative leaders are blocking customer choice, reducing our ability to lock in long-term energy options, and rolling the dice with utility bills for Floridians across the state. We can and should do better.

Katie Chiles Ottenweller is the southeast director for Vote Solar.