Florida rejects renewable energy plan again

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA - Solar and biomass energy companies mourned the loss of a sure job development opportunity as the Senate's budget chief put a spear through a bill to spur renewable energy in Florida.

"I'd pronounce that one dead," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee after he indefinitely postponed a bill that would have allowed Florida's largest electric companies to raise electric rates as much as $375 million a year for five years to develop alternative energy.

"I think it's a terrible idea," said Alexander, a citrus grower. "I can't believe we'd ask Florida to pay $1 billion in additional assessments with zero regulatory oversight. I think that's fundamentally not right."

This is the third year the bill has been the priority of Florida Power & Light, and it is the third time the bill has died. The only thing new this year is that the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity joined in the chorus of opponents to argue against the bill.

The conservative tea party group opposed the bill because the rate increase was "a direct hit on the wallets of every Floridian," but renewable energy companies disliked it because they saw it as a handout to the state's electric monopolies. They tried but failed to get House and Senate leaders to expand the bill to allow generators of rooftop solar power or biomass plants to generate and sell energy alongside the utilities.

More than 30 bills attempting to develop a commercial market for renewable energy in Florida were proposed this session but only the FPL-backed bill got a hearing.

"What the Florida Legislature failed to realize is they have a readily available work force — of construction workers, engineers and developers — that could be put to work in the solar industry if there were some incentives," said Alex Rivera, president of Vanguard Energy Partners, a solar rooftop installer based in Stuart who does most of his business in New Jersey.

Unlike Florida, New Jersey offers individuals and businesses financial incentives to recover the full cost of installing rooftop solar panels over five years. Since 2001, 8,950 individuals and businesses have installed solar units and the market is booming, he said.

Consumers save electricity, electric companies offset the need to construct new power plants, and the environment is spared emissions from fossil fuels, Rivera said. "Why would Florida not want to take advantage of one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation?"

But FPL was adamant it wanted a bill that allowed it to control the renewables market. It hired 32 lobbyists, seeded the Senate president and House speaker's political funds with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions, and donated more than $4 million to legislators, the governor and the political parties in the last two years.

The FPL-backed proposal won the support of both the House and Senate energy committees. It would have given the state's investor-owned electric companies the ability to raise rates to recover the cost of building solar power plants at a time when there is no demand for additional electricity generation. Progress Energy of Florida and Tampa Electric Co. said the effort was not a priority for them, but FPL hoped to expand on its already growing solar energy market. FPL customers using 1,200 kilowatt hours a month would have paid an average of $2.40 a month.


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