Utilities overpower the little guy

FLORIDA - Market forces and competition are favorite conservative watchwords, except when it comes to public utilities. Bills that would give the state's largest electric companies incentives to essentially monopolize the renewable energy market are on the move.

Lawmakers are embracing legislation that is a gift to the utilities, leaving it to the companies to make decisions on their renewable energy commitments while making it harder for the little guy to enter the field.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have set targets for production of renewable energy, such as solar, wind and biomass. Not Florida. Other states have expanded opportunities for competition by directing public utilities to buy consumer-generated energy at a competitive price. Not Florida. As a result, there is little incentive for big-box retailers to invite solar energy companies to install rooftop solar panels and sell the energy.

If Florida got its rules right, it could drive private investment in clean energy technology to the state, even as it encouraged public utilities to expand their renewable energy portfolio. But the state's lawmakers are too beholden to the monopolistic utilities to listen. Since 2009, Florida Power & Light and its affiliates have spent at least $4 million on campaign contributions to legislators and candidates for governor. The utility gave more than $1 million to the Republican Party.

This has spawned predicable political games. For example, a fleeting attempt in the Senate to include a provision that would open the market to renewable energy competitors was quickly squashed by Senate leaders when FP&L expressed strong opposition. Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities, said including the provision initially was "a technical glitch" - a Tallahassee euphemism for upsetting a major campaign contributor.

The Senate plan would allow electric companies to increase customer bills $1.40 to $2.60 per month to pay for the construction of solar and biomass energy plants for the next five years. But lawmakers would impose no obligation on the state's utilities to actually develop and build new renewable energy sources or buy renewable energy from the open market for a fair price.

A similar proposal was approved by a House committee recently that would allow utilities to charge customers as much as $2 billion over five years for the costs of producing renewable energy. Mark Bubriski, director of media relations for FP&L, says that public utilities are in the best position to efficiently and cheaply generate renewable energy. That may be true at the moment, but there is an uneven playing field, and the private market should be encouraged to help fill the need.

That won't happen without the state directing utilities to pay more generously for the power produced by others - something FP&L opposes. FP&L pays far less for privately generated energy in many cases than what the company charges its customers, which Bubriski defends as fair since FP&L shoulders the costs of transmission and distribution. It also makes it harder for small producers to exist.

Asking ratepayers to pay a little more for a major expansion of renewable energy is appropriate when there are guaranteed targets and a competitive pricing schedule for all such energy producers. But nothing like that is likely to come from a Legislature addicted to the big campaign dollars doled out by public utilities. That's something to remember come the next election.


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