That a Democrat is leading the charge for more solar energy in the Sunshine State tells skeptics all they need to know about the prospects for sun power in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Still, St. Petersburg’s Rep. Dwight Dudley hopes his colleagues will open up the market for more solar power, essentially deregulating solar and eliminating the investor-owned utilities’ monopoly control over renewable energy sources in general. And if his bill goes nowhere, he also is working to develop a citizens ballot initiative.
“When you ask consumers if they want consumer choice in energy, they say, ‘Yes.’ ” Dudley says. “I believe the people will support a change in energy policy to support energy independence and consumer choice.”
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Contrast Florida’s legislative inaction with what’s going on in Georgia, where even Atlanta’s tea partiers support more solar. In fact, Georgia utility regulator Bubba McDonald, a Republican, pushed for more solar in his state because, he said, he wanted his grandchildren to see live trees. As Georgia surpassed Florida in solar installations, he taunted the Sunshine State about being a laggard.
McDonald said states have to direct the utilities to generate more solar power. “If you order the utilities to do it, they will figure out how to do it in a cost-effective manner,” McDonald told the Tampa Bay Times last fall.
Investor-owned utilities, which maintain monopoly control in Florida, want to keep power centralized. That is how they make money.
They support of wider use of solar, but they want it utility-scale rather than on the rooftops of businesses and homes. They argue that plans such as Dudley’s will enable the wealthy to generate their own power and leave the burden of maintaining the grid on the middle class and poor.
“I would love to have more utility-scale solar,” Eric Silagy, president of Florida Power Light, the state’s largest utility, recently told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. “We know it works. I think it’s a legitimate way to diversify.”
“Nobody has worked harder to build more solar,” Silagy said. “There wasn’t, frankly, a whole lot of support. I tried to get something across the line” in the Legislature.
Utility critics argue that the power companies want only what’s good for them but not necessarily for consumers.
“Florida lacks leadership from policymakers who — due to the influence of big utilities — stop consumers from harnessing the sun on the roofs of homes and businesses,” says Susan Glickman, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
If, as Glickman sees it, Florida developed a least-cost planning model and created incentives for utilities to support energy efficiency and rooftop solar, everyone would benefit. (“Least-cost” is a cost/benefit analysis that looks at all alternatives to a problem and weighs not just financial costs but social and environmental ones as well; in energy, for example, it would look not just at the cheapest way to produce power but would consider energy-saving alternatives that would cost money but save energy and cut pollution.)
As it stands, Florida continues to fall behind in solar installations, while the likes of New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Georgia surpass the Sunshine State. Florida fell from 12th to 18th in solar installations toward the end of last year compared to other states.
Scott McIntyre, president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, says a little support for solar — such as requirements for utilities to use a certain percentage of solar or other renewable — would enable more widespread deployment.
“We should be actively involved in pushing the utilization of distributive energy (or rooftop solar),” McIntyre says. “Solar power does work in Florida. All we need is a turn of the dial as they’ve done in Georgia. We don’t need much, just a little courage from somebody.”
Florida, McIntyre and others say, should lead in renewable energy development and deployment because the Sunshine State is vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change.
The state has weaned itself from some fossil fuel use but still relies on natural gas for more than 60 percent of its electricity generation. New nuclear plants are too costly, with Duke Energy’s proposed Levy County plant proving unfeasible. FPL is proposing to add to its Turkey Point power plant, but most economic observers say besides reactors already approved and under construction, no new reactors are expected in the near future.
“To avoid increasing greenhouse gas pollution, which is disrupting our climate, we must meet our energy needs with cost-effective energy efficiency and renewables like solar,” Glickman says. “The cost for solar has dropped 60 percent since 2011 and can be easily deployed given the strong solar resource in the Sunshine State.”
So far, Tallahassee has lacked interest in helping Florida increase its solar generation, while Glickman and others believe the Sunshine State should be a leader.