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Florida, Like Texas, Rejects Renewables Push (solar & sugarcane proposals attract nuclear and offshore drilling tie-in's in the Sunshine State)

Yesterday’s post at MasterResource described the failure of the 81st Texas Legislature (aka the “solar session”) to enact a new renewables mandate. Other big news is the rejection of an initial renewable (read solar, biomass) mandate by the Florida Legislature, as well as a sweetheart deal desired by Florida Power & Light (FPL). Nuclear and offshore drilling also came into play in the legislative debate as tie-in’s in the political environment.

All this is instructive for the current federal push for a National Electricity Standard (NES). Florida would be a loser in any national NES–especially given the prohibitive cost of converting sunshine into electricity in any sort of a major way. The age-old promises of solar breakthroughs are a mirage, and Enron’s 1994 contrived Solarex splash should not be forgotten.

As reported by John Dorschner in the Miami Herald, Florida rejected a year-long push by environmental groups and their business allies to enact a renewable quota in the state. The drama included the pro-mandate/subsidy Gov. Charlie Crisp; Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; sugarcane company Florida Crystals; and (would-be) solar town developer Syd Kitson. On the other side was a lot of common sense and a fickle utility, FPL. There was no free market voice of note in the debate, at least as reported by the press.

Florida’s plan for renewables was a lot of wasted energy

“A year of work by environmentalists and green companies to create a renewable-energy standard for Florida ultimately produced nothing”

For a year, while the green movement was at its height, Florida environmentalists, new solar companies, utility lobbyists and state regulators spent thousands of hours trying to determine how much of the state’s power supply should come from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

They did it because the Legislature in 2008 ordered them to do it. After sifting through thousands of pages of documents and sitting in lengthy workshops, the Public Service Commission sent its recommendations to the 2009 Legislature. A renewable-energy bill passed the Senate but died in the House. The result: A year of work wasted.

Among the major victims: The ballyhooed Babcock Ranch project, which is trying to become the first solar-powered city in the world, and thousands of construction workers who would have been hired to build new power plants.

”We are extremely disappointed,” said Stephen Smith, head of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The people of Florida should feel cheated by their legislative leadership.”

In the final days of the Legislature, the drama became intense. Gov. Charlie Crist at one point visited the House to plead for a renewable standard. When that failed, a major renewable-energy producer, Florida Crystals, turned against Florida Power & Light, which was trying to craft its own solar deal. That deal died.

The renewable saga began in July 2007 when Crist asked the Public Service Commission to develop rules to make power companies produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At least 25 states already have such standards.

The PSC held four workshops in 2007 attended by major environmentalists and utility representatives.

The issues were complex. Would solar and wind power cost customers more? Yes, probably, said the experts. How much more? The experts weren’t certain. The PSC didn’t come to any conclusions, and neither did the 2008 Legislature, which debated the issue at length and then ordered the PSC to study the matter again.

Three more workshops were held. The PSC commissioned a study on the costs and potential for renewables from the Navigant consulting firm, which produced a 200-plus-page document at a cost of $135,000.

FPL sparked intense debate by insisting that, instead of a renewable standard, nuclear power should be considered in a ”clean energy” standard because nuclear can produce huge amounts of power while emitting no greenhouse gases. Environmentalists objected, saying huge nuclear plants would eliminate any need for solar, which they much preferred.

The commission sent a 167-page report to the Legislature recommending that by 2020, 20 percent of power come from renewables, as long as it didn’t increase customers’ bills more than 2 percent a year. The report said the Legislature “may wish to consider” adding nuclear to the standard.

In the Senate, Sen. Jim King crafted a compromise bill that included nuclear, but only up to five percentage points of the 20 percent standard. Environmentalists didn’t like the nuclear provision, but King told environmental activist Susan Glickman that it was the only way to get it to pass.

”He did a masterful job,” said Gaston Cantens of Florida Crystals, which produces power from sugar cane waste.  “Not everyone liked everything in it, but it had just enough of what people wanted so nobody was really upset.”

The bill stalled in the House, which was somewhat disorganized after the indictment of former speaker Ray Sansom, said Glickman. ‘They’d say, `The House doesn’t have any appetite for this.’ ‘We did energy last year.’ ”

Florida Power & Light publicly supported a renewable standard, particularly if it included nuclear, but others weren’t so sure of what the utilities really wanted. Florida Crystals lobbyist Sean Stafford said the big utilities made ”public pronouncements” that favored renewables, ”but I never saw the private heavy lifting” by their many lobbyists to get a bill passed.

Ultimately, House leaders added offshore drilling to an energy bill, guaranteeing that environmentalists would oppose it. ”On the last day of the session, the governor physically came down to the House and pushed very hard” for a renewables bill, said Glickman.

Meanwhile, FPL tried a separate maneuver, attaching a rider to a large spending bill that would have given it full cost recovery for several of its solar projects, including the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant for the new city of Babcock Ranch, 17,000 acres near Fort Myers.

FPL supports solar projects as long as its costs can be completely recovered from its customers. It has three solar projects already under way because of an earlier arrangement from the Legislature.

But this time, renewable-energy groups and other entities were upset that FPL was getting a solar deal while they got nothing. Florida Crystals sent lobbyist Sean Stafford to talk to a Senate leader. The FPL deal died. Stafford, lobbyist Glickman and Crystals spokesman Cantens all confirm this story.

FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said, “We were obviously disappointed that the Legislature did not carry forward . . . the development of renewable energy in Florida.”

Anderson pointed out that construction of clean-energy plants can boost the economy. “For example, the 75-megawatt solar thermal facility we are building in Martin County will generate more than 1,000 construction jobs, and a recent job fair to fill these positions brought in more than 8,000 applicants. . . .

“The Babcock Ranch solar project would bring additional renewable energy, more than 400 jobs and significant economic benefits to the state. We would like to move forward on the project. . . and will move forward when the necessary regulatory framework is in place.”

Developer Syd Kitson said he is continuing his plans for Babcock Ranch. ”We’re hopeful of starting construction next year,” he said, and he still wants the city to be solar powered. That means action by the Legislature. “It’s not hurting us at the moment, but it’s important we do get action.”

Has the tide turned against mandated renewables? Can there be any compromise with other goodies that constituencies desire–some exotic mix of wind, solar, nuclear, and offshore oil and gas development?

The Florida debate may be the federal debate in microcosm where nuclear and offshore drilling are heard from. Politics can make strange bedfellows.

3 comments

1 Andrew { 06.10.09 at 10:20 am }

“Gov. Charlie Crisp” Hehe…He is a weenie to. Oh if only we had a better governor…

2 offshore company philippines { 11.20.09 at 10:38 pm }

Drilling is very safe now, the platforms are only in place temporarily, and if far enough out won’t be visible, or even if they are, they will have no more impact on the view than a large boat.

3 Doug { 09.17.10 at 9:33 pm }

Yeah offshore drilling is so safe now. Maybe you should look at BP to find out just how safe we are with that. FPL should just understand that wind and solar will someday overtake them in the energy supplier for Florida. We don’t need legislation to use solar or wind power. The only reason for legislation is to get the government to pay for part of the price but with a 30% tax credit we should all jump on it.

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