Senate moves forward with energy diversification proposal

A Senate committee moved forward with a bill Monday that raises the possibility of cutting the state's reliance on natural gas to fuel power plants and also includes tax incentives for renewable-energy companies.  James Call reports Senators appear confident that they can develop a state energy policy but advocates for renewable and alternative sources of energy are calling on lawmakers to develop a bolder policy.

The proposal promises to be a major piece of energy legislation. It is based on recommendations by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. He wants more diversity in the sources of fuel Florida uses to produce electricity. Policy makers though are very sensitive to cost factors to consumers. As illustrated by staff director Mack Carter when he briefed the Energy Committee on the bill they will work on next week.

"First of all to give you the over-arching premise of the bill Senators, the overarching premise of this bill is no rate increase for rate payers. No rat increase for rate payers. Hope you guys heard me on that."

Those are fighting words to people who have been trying to get the state to diversify its energy supply. More than 50 percent of the state’s electricity is generated by burning natural gas. That reliance on one source of fuel worries some. Four years ago then-Governor Charlie Crist proposed a goal of 20 percent of electricity production from renewable energy. The idea went nowhere in the Legislature because of cost concerns. But Susan Glickman, an energy advocate says a cost argument is a red herring a false argument. And she says assertions that maintaining the status quo prevents price increases are a diversion from reality.

"The point is it’s a myth that if they do nothing that bills will remain the same. Bills are going to go up anyways. So when someone makes the statement that clean energy technology be it efficiencies or renewable technologies cost more the real question to ask is cost more as oppose to what? And if it cost more than that proposed new natural gas plant or that new nuclear power plant demand side management and conservation is going to cost less every time."

Glickman calls Putnam’s recommendations a good starting point for a conversation. He proposes incentives for utilities to use renewables like solar, wind and bio mass. Putnam would allow them to recover the cost of generating up to one percent or 75 megawatts of capacity from alternative sources. Advocates like Glickman say in the long run renewable energy and energy conservation programs will save consumers money. New Port Richey Senator Mike Fasano says he wants to hear more. Many of his constituents once were served by a now disabled nuclear power plant.

"And because of that, progress energy has to go out and buy that more expensive fuel and so I’m interested to see what is in this bill that is possibly going to have an impact positive or negatively on my constituents.

The bill the committee will work on reduces regulations, restores tax credits and allow utilities to invest in private renewable energy facilities. A House Democrat calls it a very, very, very modest proposal. Melbourne Senator Thad Altman, a Republican wants it to be bolder. He sees a future where say an apartment building owner installs solar panels and uses other renewable sources to bypass an electric company to provide power to his building. Right now, he says, Florida law prohibits such innovative entrepreneurism.

"I’m not selling that energy to anyone else. I’m only consuming it on my property. Providing it to my apartments but yet I am determined to be a utility. I mean that is nothing more than prohibiting competition."

Altman says we have been delivering electricity to Floridians the same way for decades and decades. And then he points to the revolution in wireless Internet and the development of smartphones triggered by deregulation. He wonders if the same thing is possible with entrepreneurs and the production of electricity. Altman says right now, he sees a government structure designed to protect an archaic system.

"I would like to see a lot more competition. And that is industry disruptive. And it is just human nature it is the nature of any economic system when one entity has a monopoly the power or the sole source they want to prevent someone else from coming in but that is the American way. Competition that is important. I don’t like monopolies, I like free enterprise. "

Altman predicts that there will be an interesting discussion at next week’s meeting of the Senate Communications Energy and Public Utilities Committee.