Putnam positions himself as Florida's energy go-to man

Jan 23, 2012

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist was a big fan of alternative and renewable energy.  The state’s commitment to developing those energy sources may have slipped a bit with his departure from the governor’s mansion.  But Tom Flanigan reports the concept remains very much alive at the State Capitol.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Adam Putnam was front and center at Monday’s meeting of the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee.

“We think that this is a good beginning for you to chew on and mull over as you deliberate the potential energy package for this session.”

As things stand now, Putnam is state government’s top point man when it comes to such things.  That’s because last year, the legislature put Florida’s Energy Office in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“The first task was to sort out the pile of coat hangers that is the Solar Rebate Program.  And within 100 days the Energy Office had done that and those checks were issued to customers who had invested in that technology and they got back roughly half of what had been contemplated at one point for that program.”

Putnam says that program and federal stimulus incentives for renewable energy totaled some two-hundred million dollars.  Auditors are still trying to figure out how much of that money went where it was supposed to.  But that’s the past, Putnam says.  The big issue now, he told committee members, is to diversify Florida’s power production portfolio.

“It’s about 51 now, within a decade statewide it’ll be about 56.  If you look within utilities, it could be as high as 70-percent dependence on a single fuel source.”

Which is natural gas.  It’s cheap now, but Putnam cautions that can change in a hurry.  So he’d like at least some of the existing incentives for utilities to bring more renewable energy online stay in place, as well as some new ones.

“One recommendation is to require the P.S.C. to place a value on diversity and consider that diversity during need-determination proceedings.  We believe that by placing that value on diversity we can improve the opportunity to strengthen our energy security and reduce our dependence on a single source.”

Putnam says, because of this and other factors, he’s confident the state’s investor-owned utilities will be eager to voluntarily make more of their electricity from things other than fossil fuels or nuclear power.  As a result, he says the state can drop the old mandate pushed by Charlie Crist to require utilities produce at least twenty percent of their power from renewable by the year 2020.

“That’s something that the legislature had put into statute several years ago.  No action has been taken.  We propose to remove it from the books.”

Putnam says utilities wouldn’t have to worry about making huge upfront investments to go renewable…
“They would be able, if they so choose, to do one-percent or 75-megawatts, have some recovery when it is determined that that investment is in the public interest and that there is some economic limitation on that reduces and protects the interest of the rate payer in making those decisions.”

Putnam’s suggestions seemed to find favor among most committee members.  Melbourne Republican Thad Altman hoped the state’s energy future would have a place for non-utility power producers.

“I love our big energy producers.  They provide a very important service and they do so very efficiently, but I don’t love them enough to support monopolies.  I’m an American.  I believe in free enterprise and competition.”

After the committee meeting, Putnam said he was encouraged by the members’ positive response.  He told reporters he was confident they’d come up with bills supporting his suggestions.

“It’s an incentive piece that doesn’t pick winners and losers, it’s less regulation and it’s pushing the P.S.C. towards a more balanced portfolio of sources of our energy in Florida.”

While at the same time removing a renewable energy mandate that Florida’s investor-owned utilities couldn’t wait to be rid of.