Hypocrisy and Cronyism in the ‘Sunshine’ State

Guest Blog | July 30, 2014 | Energy Policy, Solar

This guest post is written by Brian Holton Henderson, and was originally published on Huff Post Green on July 16, 2014. You can access the original post here.

If the rhetoric is to be believed, Florida is a bountiful garden of sustainable energy production. The state Public Service Commission recently reported that the utility grid is dynamic and accessible for customers; that the state’s net metering rules, under attack elsewhere in the nation, are safe; and that the state’s investor-owned utilities are kept on a tight leash by the brotherly, but firm, oversight of the PSC. It is daytime in the Sunshine State, and the grid is humming with 63 megawatts of clean energy.

Disappointingly, Florida’s energy situation is not as lustrous as the PSC would have the public believe. The state’s electric generation capacity from customer-owned renewable energy systems has reached about 63 megawatts (MW). When you consider the fact that Florida’s total summertime solar capacity is 51,373 MW, that 63 MW looks considerably less monumental. Put another way, solar capacity in Florida is about 0.1 percent of total generation capacity. This means almost none of Florida’s energy consumers are powering their homes with solar. Or, if almost none is too vague, try one-tenth of 1 percent. That’s an insult to a drop in the proverbial bucket.

Florida ranks third in the nation for solar potential, but is currently not in the top 10 solar-producing states. Its total installed capacity is dwarfed by that of New Jersey, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, to name a few — all of which are smaller and considerably less sunny. It gets worse. Thirty-seven states have renewable portfolio standard policies, which fines utility companies if they fail to fulfill a certain percentage of a state’s energy needs through renewable power. Florida, among 12 others, lacks even the most basic framework for renewable policy development.

Unfortunately, this is no accident. Utilities companies have launched an unfolding offensive against the burgeoning renewable energy industry. Those following this campaign won’t be surprised to hear that Florida’s solar woes are traceable to utility companies looking to protect their energy monopolies.

The Florida State Legislature, notoriously in the pocket of the state’s four largest utilities, has been responsible for halting efforts to expand Florida’s fertile renewable market. Integrity Florida reports that utilities have contributed more than $18 million to state-level candidates. They have hired former state regulators, pushed rate hikes through the legislature, and sent, on average, one lobbyist for every two state legislators — in every session between 2007 and 2013. Perhaps most disturbingly, the legislature appoints commissioners to the Public Service Commission. The distorted facts from the PSC are even more chilling when one realizes whose hand is playing puppeteer.

The PSC’s stated purpose is to provide competitive market oversight, protect consumers from rate manipulation and act as a trusted interface between customer and utility. By allowing its impartiality to be compromised by vested interests, it has failed in every aspect of its mission. This is all the more shameful given recent polls showing that upward of 75 percent of Florida voters from both parties support rooftop solar and oppose new fees on customers looking to diversify their energy sources.

Floridians echo nationwide trends showing that consumers on both sides of the aisle support renewable energy and broad consumer choice. They have come to expect utilities to resort to underhanded tactics to preserve their anachronistic monopolies. The Sunshine State has the chance to become a worldwide leader in solar generation. If Floridians continue to demand transparency from the PSC, an end to graft and cronyism in their state’s politics, and greater energy choice from their utilities, they may yet seize that opportunity.

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