State Politics

State urged to win race for energy

MANATEE — At a time of tremendous urgency in energy policy, states with an “open for business” sign on the door have a chance to create the next generation of jobs and profits in renewable energy, expected to be among the largest new markets on the planet, environmentalists say.

And while a bill sponsored by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota — which would allow those who generate electricity from renewable sources to sell it on the open market — so far has languished in the Florida Legislature, its concept is part of Capitol discussions, environmentalists and lawmakers say.

“The question is: Who gets to play in the market?” said Jerry Karnas, the Sarasota-based director for the Florida Climate Project, affiliated with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.

“We want to encourage the widest participation possible, we want Lakewood Ranch to partner in the market, we want the Manatee Memorial Hospital to be able to put solar panels on the roof and make a profit on it.”

“We don’t want it controlled by a very small group of folks, because then, you get market distortion and not a lot of liquidity,” he added.

In order to reach renewable energy targets designed to reduce greenhouse gases and halt global warming, the state could depend upon large companies, such as Florida Power & Light, to institute more eco-friendly ways of generating electricity, or it could use another method that would help smaller businesses to sell excess energy produced by alternative means by requiring electric companies to buy it, said Karnas.

“That’s what the Fitzgerald bill does, it would allow any hospital, school, church, farmer, to put solar panels on their roof, or to partner in the energy market,” said Karnas. “It’s important because you get a broader market, a bigger market, it ensures competition.”

And in a state dubbed “the Sunshine State,” such a strategy is eminently workable, he said.

With the right moves in Tallahassee, those out of work could immediately shift to building solar facilities or launching businesses that sell renewable energy generated in other ways, such as wind power or conversion of methane gas, he said.

“Renewable energy is trying to get some of the same incentives traditional methods of generation have had for many years,” said Susan Glickman, a consultant for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit organization based in Knoxville, Tenn., hoping to expand “clean” energy options in the South.

“It’s necessary to jump-start the market,” she said. “It’s a goal everyone shares, to want to jump-start the market for renewable energy. The discussion is in the details of that right now. There’ll be debate in detail, but it looks possible for Florida to come away with a target for renewable energy.”

Fitzgerald’s bill, House Bill 1317, would create the first statewide system in the U.S. providing a way for those who generate energy via alternative means, such as solar photovoltaic cells, to sell any excess to utility companies.

The bill calls for electric utilities to provide producers of renewable energy with interconnection and metering service; specifies fees for such services; and requires electric utilities to buy renewable energy at specified rates. A similar bill, Senate Bill 2392, is under consideration in the Senate.

Fitzgerald, a New College professor whose specialty is public policy, said his bill is popular among his constituents, but he wondered last week whether top House leaders might have sidetracked it. Still, he hoped his ideas would find a way into this year’s energy legislation.

On Tuesday, a state Senate panel approved a proposal to require Florida power companies to significantly increase the amount of electricity they produce from renewable sources, according to The News Service of Florida.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, would create a trust fund to help pay for the investment that will be required by a new proposed renewable energy standard that would have to be met by 2020, it said.

But the panel could not agree on the best way to help utility companies pay for it, it added.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, said House leaders have nothing against Fitzgerald’s bill, but were awaiting Senate action and a framework in which to consider a wide range of possibilities.

“I know the energy committee is coming together,” Reagan said Wednesday. “They will meet the Senate leadership this week or next week. I know they’re looking at stuff, they’ll weigh all options available.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908.