President Obama visits Florida – a trip filled with irony

Stephen Smith | October 26, 2009 | Energy Policy

800px-air_force_one_landingPresident Obama is visiting DeSoto County, Florida today to headline the opening ceremony of the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) facility in the country. This must signal that Florida is on its way to a clean energy future, right?

Well, not so fast. The facility is certainly a testament to the vital role renewable energy should play in meeting energy demand, creating jobs and reducing global warming pollution. Yet, the Florida Legislature, Governor Crist, and the Florida Public Service Commission have failed to implement meaningful clean energy policies to keep the momentum going after President Obama jets away from the Sunshine State.

For starters, Governor Crist’s clean energy initiatives, including an executive order calling for 20% of our electricity to be generated from renewable energy sources by 2020, have stalled in Tallahassee. Twenty-eight other states have implemented renewable targets as a way to promote investment, create jobs and protect customers from fossil fuel price spikes. Why should renewable energy developers invest in Florida, when other states provide incentives? Losing ground to other states in the clean energy economy is particularly poignant at a time of record unemployment in Florida. All told, less than 4% of Florida’s energy demand is met by renewable energy — and less than 1% of that is met with solar.

The twenty-five megawatt DeSoto facility that the president will visit is owned by Florida Power and Light (FPL) and comes courtesy of a provision in a 2008 state energy bill that allowed the utility to recover all its costs of this and two other solar pilot projects – totaling 110 megawatts. FPL should be applauded for jumping on the opportunity. Yet, it is crucial to also develop a market for distributed solar energy that is owned by non-utility third parties. Creating certainty in the market is how we realize the benefits of distributed solar energy. Unfortunately, the market certainty isn’t there in Florida for private developers and individual homeowners to invest in solar PV facilities.

The popular Florida Solar Energy System Incentive Program has been hamstrung by insufficient funding for years and has now started paying out rebates on backlogged applications thanks to federal stimulus dollars. The program is set to expire next year. One solar business association is so desperate to keep the dollars flowing into the state rebate program that they’ve made a conditional deal of support with proponents of offshore oil drilling if projected revenue will be directed to solar programs. The state of renewable energy in Florida is hardly a shining example for the president to hold up as an example of the burgeoning clean energy economy.

Florida fares no better on the energy efficiency front. At least seventeen states in the nation are successfully achieving five to ten times more energy efficiency than Florida’s largest utilities. It’s ironic that on the same day we celebrate the Florida Legislature’s solar success, the Public Service Commission is deciding whether to approve FPL’s proposed efficiency goals for the next ten years when they are more than ten times lower than efficiency goals mandated by leading states.

Governor Crist’s call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Florida to 2000 year levels by 2017, and 80% below 1990 year levels by the year 2050, has been mothballed. Rule-making workshops by Crist’s Department of Environmental Protection, intended to produce an adopted greenhouse gas emission reduction rule by year’s end, have been postponed indefinitely.

Even the governor has quietly forgotten about his clean energy initiatives as he positions himself to win his party’s primary for U.S. Senate against conservative opponent Marco Rubio.

As President Obama steps back on Air Force One, he leaves behind a state where renewable energy developers clamor for renewable targets and incentives, customers desperately need relief from rising electricity bills, families demand action on climate change, and unemployed workers hope for a new economic engine to spur the economy. The governor, legislature, and state agencies would be wise to leverage the president’s visit as a catalyst to get back on track toward setting renewable energy targets, developing meaningful efficiency goals and creating clean energy jobs in Florida.

Click here for Obama’s speech at the opening ceremony of the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Center in Arcadia, Florida.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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