This article, written by SACE Florida Director Susan Glickman, was originally published here on Tallahassee.com
The Clean Energy Congress convenes today in Florida’s Historic Old Capitol. Sixty-seven delegates — symbolic of the state’s 67 counties — will take their places in the storied desks of the Old House Chamber. These energy stakeholders have traveled to Tallahassee — some at great personal sacrifice — to bring their voice to the crucial energy policy debate.
It’s time for an honest discussion about what constitutes good energy policy in Florida before we fully miss the opportunity to diversify our economic base and create jobs. The longstanding business model of large power companies — which cover roughly 75 percent of the state — is to build large, centralized power plants that they own and control. Naturally, they resist market forces that challenge their business model.
Current Florida utility regulation rewards only capital expenditures, such as building power plants, rather than meaningful efficiency opportunities. Like waiters in a restaurant, the more that’s spent, the more they make. That dynamic needs to change, but massive political contributions mean enormous political clout, for this is truly about money and precious jobs are at stake.
Every year, $57 billion leaves the state to provide fuel for electricity and transportation. The easiest and fastest job-creation program ever would be to keep energy dollars home, circulating in our economy and creating jobs.
Energy efficiency is the best first step. Jeb Bush was famously known for saying, “The cheapest, easiest and fastest kilowatt we generate is the one we save through efficiencies.” There is vast energy efficiency potential in Florida to meet demand at a fraction of the cost of new power plants.
The city of Tallahassee utility — recognized by the American Public Power Association as the top public utility in the country — is leading the way with its award-winning Neighborhood REACH program. This innovative effort has successfully served more than 4,000 homes, deploying energy conservation measures to customers — including the neediest. Citizens slash their energy use and save money on their bills with free home energy assessments and cost-effective measures such as ceiling insulation, weatherstripping, caulking and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Tallahassee helps citizens save energy and money. The state’s biggest power companies can do the same.
Renewable energy, such as solar, continues to enjoy steep declines in price and is, in many instances, less costly than power from conventional power plants. Conventional power has increased rates in Florida by over 50 percent since 2000, yet the installed cost of solar systems has dropped by 50 percent over the same time period. Utility customers now can generate their own power and send excess power back to the grid.
Customer-generated solar also helps lower fuel costs, insulates from future fuel price spikes, avoids the construction of power plants and supports the reliability of the grid. Yet, solar power with all its benefits makes up less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the Sunshine State’s energy mix.
Why? Florida is not utilizing a least-cost, least-risk approach to meet energy demand. Families and businesses are exposed to unnecessary costs and risk. The state’s utility planning process is disjointed — leading to a 60-percent reliance on natural gas. Renewables make up only 2 percent of the mix, and the state’s biggest power company meets a meager two-tenths of 1 percent of demand with energy efficiency. Low-cost efficiency and renewables must be on a level playing field with conventional power.
Georgia has a more open utility planning process. As a result, the Georgia Public Service Commission just required Georgia Power — Gulf Power’s counterpart — to increase cost-effective solar by 525 megawatts by the end of 2016; that includes 425 megawatts from large “utility-scale” projects and 100 from small projects. Georgia Power’s already developing 260 megawatts of solar for a total of 785 MW. By contrast, the Sunshine State has only 205 MW.
Rather than fight changing energy market dynamics, Florida power companies should embrace and adapt for the benefit of their customers. Legislative leaders have a role to play in ensuring that policies encourage change — not hinder it.
The Clean Energy Congress will give voice to the ways that will help Florida meet the energy challenges of the 21st century while creating economic development and jobs. The times have changed — business as usual is no longer a policy option.