By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 11, 2010…..For the first time in nearly three years, Gov. Charlie Crist is talking seriously again about renewable energy in Florida, reviving hopes in some quarters that lawmakers may pass a renewable energy bill that had been left for dead just weeks ago.
Crist had pushed for a firm requirement that Florida power companies produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources when he first took office, positioning himself as one of the nation’s most environmentally-friendly Republican leaders. But the governor fell silent on the plan when he became embroiled in a competitive Republican U.S. primary.
But since the April explosion at a BP oil rig that caused thousands of gallons of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico and Crist’s decision to run for the U.S. Senate with no-party affiliation, the governor has gone back to talking green.
Crist was talking about renewable and clean energy again Tuesday at the Capitol, when he confirmed that he would likely call a late May special session so lawmakers could consider a constitutional ban on offshore oil drilling. Crist said the special session should also include a fresh look from lawmakers at renewable energy legislation they’ve previously shown little interest in.
“We’ll talk about wind, nuclear, solar, natural gas and other alternative means to provide energy to our people,” Crist told reporters before the Cabinet meeting Tuesday, repeating what has become a mantra as the Gulf oil spill has unfolded.
Crist had yet to specify exactly what he would like to see lawmakers enact regarding renewable energy, but a spokesman said Tuesday that an executive order Crist signed in his first year in office calling for the 20 percent production by 2020 standard could be back on the table.
“That may be a good starting point,” Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey told the News Service of Florida. “What’s going to dictate that is what the Legislature’s appetite is. Those conversations are occurring now to get a good framework on what a special session involving renewable energy would entail. That’s going to start the negotiation and we’ll see where the Legislature is.”
But supporters of renewable energy in the House and the Senate were not as sure the oil spill had changed the political calculus enough that the Legislature would pass a renewable plan – particularly one with mandates on companies – after balking at it the past two years. The 20 by 2020 idea formed the basis of a bill that was approved in 2009 by the Senate, but never taken up by the House.
This year, lawmakers on the House Energy & Utilities committee voted down a much-less ambitious plan for an increase to five percent by 2020, which would only cause power companies to increase their production by 2.5 percent over the next decade.
“I haven’t heard anything, but I can assure you I will be filling a bill on renewable energy if there is (a special session),” said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.
But Bennett, who pushed this session for a plan that would have allowed utilities to recover up to 2 percent of their 2009 profits without approval from the Public Service Commission if they expanded their use of renewable energy, said it was unlikely lawmakers would be turned around on the plan by the spill.
“It’s highly unlikely, but not because I don’t want it,” Bennett said. “I’m passionately hoping for it, but I’m not putting any money on it.”
However, the sponsor of the five percent plan was hopeful something could pass, even if it was not the full 20 percent requirement pushed before by Crist and preferred by environmentalists. Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, told the News Service Tuesday that he would file a renewable bill in the House, though it would probably mirror his late session proposal.
“If we can get a commitment for five percent, we could at least get the utilities at the table with renewable producers,” he said. “You can make it five percent or seven percent. To me, it’s about the commitment. I think five percent is a good number because the utilities are at 2.5 percent now, so that gives them 10 years to get another 2.5 percent.”
Gibbons said he thought the spill would open enough minds in the Legislature to give a smaller renewable bill a chance at passing, even in the recalcitrant House.
“I think people are going to have to look at renewables again with the spill,” he said. “I think it’ll soften people and now there’s a real push and momentum from the governor. The governor’s been kind of silent on it. He was for 20 percent by 2020 in 2007, but he hasn’t said anything since.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink said Tuesday that she also thinks the political calculus has changed.
“This accident has raised the consciousness level of many Floridians and hopefully its raised the consciousness level of many legislators,” Sink said.
“Florida ought to be the Saudi Arabia of biomass,” Sink said. “We have two or three growing seasons here. There’s incredible research going on around non-food types of plant material that generates biodiesel, for example. There are tremendous opportunities there, there just aren’t the sufficient economic incentives to get past that tipping point.”
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said he didn’t think there was common ground yet on energy legislation – in his chamber anyway – and asked Crist to propose something. “I have asked Governor Crist to submit energy legislation to us that would have minimal impact on Florida’s rate-paying citizens and be mindful of the state of Florida’s budget,” Atwater said.
After watching the Legislature not approve the plan in the last couple years, environmentalists had all but given up on the Legislature. The Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association said last week that paperwork had been filed with the Division of Elections to launch a petition drive to put the mandate on the 2012 ballot.
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy lobbyist Susan Glickman said Tuesday there was hope among environmentalists that could be avoided with the talk of renewables being included a drilling special session, though they were not ready to abandon the nascent push for a 2012 vote.
“That would be fantastic,” she told the News Service. “It fair to say it is not enough just to be against drilling. We have to be for an alternative to dirty and dangerous fossil fuels.”
But Glickman said it was not enough for lawmakers to be talking about renewable energy. They’ve been doing that for years, she said.
“If there is a renewed appetite in part because of this tragedy in the Gulf, then perhaps we can get good policy in place and won’t need to redress in the constitutional amendment,” she said. “This has been a discussion for many years now. Florida has struggled with embracing and moving the needle on developing renewable energy longer than the past two years.”
Glickman said the spill would make the need for a constitutional amendment even stronger if lawmakers fail to approve a renewable energy standard again, even if they come back to ban drilling.
“I think that all bets are off than from where we’ve been even though it was just a few short weeks ago,” she said. “Now elected officials are seeing and the public are seeing the real life, real world implication of our inaction. The only proper response is action. We need to begin. We know how to develop renewable energy. We know how to run our cars on renewable energy. We need to enact this. We need the political will to begin. The governor and the Legislature would be wise leaders to include this in the next special session.”