Renewable industry: State going backward

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We've heard plenty of lip service when it comes to renewable energy in this state, and the talk at the Florida Energy Summit this week starring Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam wasn't any different.

In fact, Putnam, who now oversees the state Office of Energy, even cautioned that expectations for renewable energy must be managed.

Mike Antheil, executive director of a coalition of 200 small and mid-sized renewable-based businesses, took that as code for small solar, biomass and wind energy companies not to raise their hopes heading into the legislative session set to begin in January.

It's safe to say lawmakers, who are all up for re-election next year because of statewide redistricting, aren't in the mood to pass along the higher cost of renewable energy sources to voters in the form of new taxes or other fees.

"I think there was a very clear lack of urgency for renewable energy," said Antheil of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy.

His frustration is understandable. The summit was billed as a discussion about Florida's energy outlook and new opportunities for renewables, but some of the talk seemed to focus more on the past than the future.

A session that featured Art Graham, chairman of the Public Service Commission, as well as Mary Bane, a former PSC director who is now an adviser on energy policy to Gov. Rick Scott, touched on renewable policy in only the vaguest of ways.

Instead, the discussion turned to natural gas, nuclear and even coal, Florida's largest and nonrenewable sources of power.

Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, likened the PSC's 2007 decision under Gov. Charlie Crist to reject new coal plants as a mistake on the scale of the national decision to stop building new nuclear power plants 30 years ago.

"The decision to remove clean coal from the table was not the right decision," he said.

I asked Graham if he thought plans for new coal plants could emerge again given that the political climate has changed so much since Crist's push for green technology.

"You can make coal as clean as natural gas … maybe you put restrictions on it, maybe you force the technology to get to the next level," he said.

Even if regulators opened up the door for new coal in Florida, it's not a certainty that the utilities would take them up on it. For one thing, the potential for a federal carbon tax would likely make such a venture too risky.

FPL, the largest utility in the state, remains firmly committed to natural gas, nuclear and some renewables such as solar, a spokesman said.

The PSC just this week approved the fees FPL and Progress Energy customers will pay next year for upgrades to existing nuclear power plants as well as new nuclear reactors that may never get built.

This is a sore point for the renewables folks. They listen to lawmakers and others preach the need to let the free market decide which technologies succeed rather than allow the government to pick winners with incentives and subsidies — yet nuclear energy is heavily favored by government programs.

I asked Graham if he thought the proposed plants by Progress and FPL would actually be built.

"I do," he said. "Today, looking 20 years down the road, nuclear is the best choice."

Some in the audience questioned the state's bet on nuclear versus investing in renewables. But while Bane agreed that nuclear plants are expensive and conceded that "if you spent that on renewables a lot could be done," she emphasized conservation.

"The cheapest source of energy is to not use energy," she said.

That's an important point. Conservation must take a bigger spotlight, but it's not what the renewables industry wanted to hear.

"This year we're going backward," Antheil said.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448.
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