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Renewable energy proposal heading to full House vote

A House bill establishing a state energy policy cleared its final committee Friday.  James Call reports the measure received unanimous approval after the sponsor removed   language involving the public’s watchdog for utility rate hikes.

Representative Scott Plakon is sponsoring a broad energy bill that includes tax breaks and other incentives to spur development of renewable energy technology. However opposition was forming over a section of his proposal that would remove the Office of Public counsel from the control of the legislature and place it under the governor and cabinet. The counsel serves as the consumer advocate when regulators set utility rates. Plakon withdrew the section at the urging of lawmakers.

"I found out I am one of 120 House members and we have 40 Senators and a Governor and of course I don’t get to decide these things. Of course I like this part of the bill but after listening to the different stake holders and particularly there was some concern in the Senate, I decided in the best interest of trying to move all the great elements of this bill forward to remove this."

Plakon’s decision appeared to remove the last obstacle to getting the proposal to the House floor.  The state’s energy czar, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been telling lawmakers Florida needs a more diverse supply of energy. About 50 percent of the state’s electricity is produced by natural gas supplied through pipelines from elsewhere.  This concerns policy makers worried about natural disasters and accidents interrupting delivery.  Plakon’s bill and its Senate companion are based on recommendations from Putnam. When lobbying lawmakers in January he promoted the development and use of renewable energy, like solar, wind and biomass.

"This is a conversation I think about how we make the most of these potentially promising technologies represent to the state and diversify that portfolio and to create jobs in the state of Florida. We don’t have the luxury like a mid-western state to buy and sale power from our next door neighbor. We, as a peninsula we don’t have that luxury we need to produce it here by and large. And that presents opportunities and challenges."

Following Putnam’s recommendations, House and Senate committees propose extending $16 million in renewable energy tax credits, relaxing regulations on electric vehicle recharging stations and ordering an inventory of state plants that can be used as biomass. Lawmakers have struggled for three years to find agreement on a state energy policy. Last year they transferred the state energy office to Putnam’s control. Since then, Putnam says he’s been talking to key lawmakers about what a Florida energy policy should look like. 

"We talked about building this on the pillars of expanding energy production and increasing diversity, I believe that chairman Plakon’s bill accomplish that. We talked about improving conservation and efficiency, I believe this bill accomplishes that, we talked about encouraging new technology making Florida a place that welcomes these new technologies and creating jobs as a result. This bill accomplishes that."

The committee approved a series of amendments to the bill. One enables utilities to petition the Public Service Commission to recover the costs for renewable energy projects. The other allows gas stations to sell ethanol free gasoline.  Plakon told the committee he thinks the over-all proposal lines up quite well with the one produced by the Senate.

"The seam of both bills is the same. There are some elements that are different but I know Commissioner Putnam has been meeting with us and the senate. So I think at the end of the day his leadership will help pull all of this together. But I have not seen any heartburn over any differences so I’m hoping in the next couple of weeks we can bring this in for a smooth landing."

The 18 member committee gave Plakon’s energy bill unanimous approval. It’s the third House committee the proposal has cleared. So far it’s received 57 yes votes without a single no vote. The next stop is the House Floor.