By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 4, 2010……….Neither Florida’s publicly-regulated power companies or their sharpest critics got much of what they wanted out of the recently completed legislative session.
When lawmakers adjourned Sine Die last week, the session they completed was marked more by what did not happen in the energy sector than what did. Florida utilities were thought to have won a major victory after lawmakers turned two state regulators out of office who had voted against large rate increases earlier in the year.
But the big power companies also wanted an expansion of their ability to recover costs for renewable energy projects, which did not become law before the close of business.
The legislation would have allowed power companies to recover up to 2 percent of their 2009 profits without the approval of the Public Service Commission. The plan died Friday as House and Senate leaders could not come to an agreement, a fate bemoaned by the state’s largest power company.
“Sadly, Florida has missed a historic opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and grow a clean-energy economy for less than a dollar month,” Florida Power & Light said in a statement provided to the News Service of Florida. “This failure is disappointing not only for FPL but also for the thousands of Floridians out of work right now who had held out hope that their leaders take meaningful action.”
The proposal had been tucked in to – but ultimately removed from – Senate legislation that would allow local governments to issue bonds for energy efficiency, known as the Property Assessed Clean Energy bill. The PACE plan was the only renewable energy legislation to come out of the session, much to the chagrin of environmentalists.
Environmentalists wanted a mandate that power companies expand their use of renewable energy, reaching 20 percent by 2020, but that was not even seriously debated this year. That idea was in legislation that passed the Senate last year, but after watching it stall in the House, the chamber did not put much muscle into the proposal this year.
Instead, the chamber pushed a plan of incentives that would have seen the state invest up to $7.5 million dollars in renewable energy. But that was included with the cost recovery language – and died with it.
“There were a couple small advances…but the key policy that Florida needs to put in place to create a (renewable) market never happened,” Southern Alliance for Clean Energy lobbyist Susan Glickman said in a telephone interview. “The state of Florida missed a real opportunity. When I was driving home yesterday, I was like ‘we’ve now had two spectacularly unsuccessful sessions.’ I think that requires an honest look at why that did not happen.”
Glickman said she was startled that so many of the energy issues seemed to be in play in the final days of session, but very few of them came to pass.
“It was sort of oddly unorganized in terms of what transpired or didn’t transpire,” Glickman said. “For all of the debate and discussion and committee meetings and hearings, to sort of have everything in flux up to the last minute was sort of unusual. It was entirely … unclear as to what was driving decisions (which was) certainly frustrating to everyone involved.”
Glickman said that the environmental lobby may be forced to go the route other advocates who have been thwarted by the Legislature have gone: the ballot. Environmentalists may push for a constitutional amendment on the firm renewable energy standard, she said.
“I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about that,” she said. “It costs a lot of money (to collect signatures) but if the Legislature is hell-bent on being non-responsive, then we’re going to have to go another route because this is way too important to fall prey to politics.”
There may still be a sliver of hope for environmentalists with lawmakers though. Newly-independent Gov. Charlie Crist has started talking about renewable energy again in the wake of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Crist largely stayed away from the issue as he tried to win over the Republican Party base in a heated primary for the U.S. Senate. But since dropping out of that primary, he has said repeatedly that the spill should kill talk of expanding drilling in Florida, which environmentalists staunchly oppose, and revive talk of renewable investment, which environmentalists love.
“If this does not make the case that we’ve got to have energy resources that are clean that don’t destruct our environment I don’t know what is,” said Crist, who was once regarded as one of the nation’s most environmentally-friendly Republicans.
Glickman agreed the spill should help make the case for turning to renewable energy.
“One can’t help but sort of view the irony of this sort of lack of action in light of this tragic oil spill,” she said. “You wonder how such an important issue can get lost in politics. Moving renewable energy forward is sort of an abstract concept until we see the real world consequences of our inaction.”
Consumer groups that argue for lower electricity bills did not have as much to hang onto after the completion of session. The nominations of two members of the PSC who had quickly developed a reputation for being consumer friendly were voted down by the Florida Senate in the last week of session. A bill that would have banned off-the-record talks between PSC employees and utility employees also stalled on the last day of session, despite concessions that appeared to move the bill closer to passing.
And FPL announced on the final day of session that it would resume capital projects it had threatened to suspend after the PSC rejected most of its $1.25 billion rate increase request, but would proceed with layoffs.
“I thought FPL might have been using the layoffs as leverage in the Legislature,” said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. “Looks like that worked, along with their hefty campaign contributions, and the PSC Commissioners they don’t like are gone. I doubt the Legislature will make the mistake of sending any more pro-consumer commissioner candidates to Gov. Crist, so for FPL and their financiers, that looks like rate increases ahead.”
Outgoing Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, frequently lamented the lack of progress on the PSC bill in the last days, and appeared after the close of the final session to open the door to the bill coming back if a special session to tackle public corruption is called this summer.
“I wouldn’t know what the broader agenda might look like, but we felt very good about where we went on PSC reform,” Atwater told reporters late Friday night. “I respect that the House had a slightly different plan, but at the end we were getting some closeness…so we still believe there’s opportunity to reform the PSC, absolutely.”