BY CHRIS FELKER
Following up on the 2012 Florida Green, Energy & Climate Conference/Expo’s first-day focus on renewable, clean energy resources, a highlight of the second day was an in-depth legislative panel discussion of how to move the state forward in advancing utilities’ efforts to use more cleaner and renewable energy.
The May 17 discussion was moderated again this year by former Florida Department of Environmental Protection chief Michael Sole, who now is vice president of state governmental affairs for Florida Power & Light.
The panel featured several movers and shakers on the energy policy scene: Patrick J. Sheehan, director of the Office of Energy, a division of the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services; State Sen. Maria Sachs (D-District 30), who serves on the Senate Communications, Energy & Public Utilities Committee; State Rep. Lori Berman (D-District 86), who is on the House Energy & Utilities Subcommittee; State Rep. Scott Plakon (R-District 37), chairman of that subcommittee; State Rep. Mark Pafford (D-District 88), a member of the Agriculture & Natural Resources Policy Committee and the Natural Resources Appropriation Committee; State Rep. Mack Bernard (D-District 84), ranking Democrat on the Economic Development & Tourism Subcommittee; and Timothy J. Anderson, director of the Florida Energy Systems Consortium.
The consortium was created by the state government to promote collaboration between energy experts at 11 state-supported universities and is assisting in the creation of “an environmentally compatible, sustainable and efficient energy strategic plan.”
According to several speakers during the conference’s first day, the state has fallen down on the job in this department. In the words of NextEra Energy project development chief J.L. “Buck” Martinez: “Florida is one of the only states in the nation that doesn’t have a renewable energy policy. States such as Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania continue to expand renewable energy and attract new and diverse companies. Texas in particular has become a leader.”
And several of the lawmakers who spoke emphasized that the alternative-energy sector can help to raise Florida’s economy out of the doldrums and that it’s important for both parties to get behind the idea.
Berman noted that she had been on the same conference panel last year and asked to come back “because alternative and renewable energy is one of my passions.”
Noting that she drives a used Tesla, an electric vehicle, she said she was privileged last year to see the state’s first energy bill passed in four years, House Bill 7117, which establishes tax credits for production of renewable energy, reduces burdens on businesses, promotes energy efficiency and repeals an odious “renewable portfolio standard mandate” that deterred investment.
“As everybody has acknowledged, it’s certainly the first modest steps… [but] I do think we need to continue to develop our alternative and renewable energy, and I’m going to be working toward that hopefully in my next term if I have the honor to be re-elected. I think it’s a great job creator,” Berman said.
Plakon lauded the committee’s bipartisan efforts to pass an 18-part bill that “I like to say created a free market within a regulated monopoly for renewable energy in Florida.”
Pafford said it was a good first step, but more is needed. “I’m happy to have voted for it, but I’m also happy to be part of a movement where in the future, when bills like this come out of the committee, we have some decisiveness… when leaders actually get behind some of these policies and really fight for them,” he said, noting that it creates jobs — an estimated 3,850, according to Sole.
Pafford added that he would like the state’s efforts to go so far as to finance research. Anderson agreed. “The potential of Florida is enormous [but] part of moving this forward is to do it cost-effectively,” he said.
Sachs noted that Florida is on the threshold of becoming one of the leaders in the alternative energy field.
“Promoters of this event have been very instrumental in getting [together] an amazing influential bipartisan group of legislators. Together we can do great things for Florida,” she said. “Our purpose is to make sure that Florida’s resources go toward Florida’s energy needs, and the farm-to-fuel programs that have been going on are really very far-reaching.”
Bernard lauded the involvement of Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam. “Seeing the direction of Commissioner Putnam was important,” he said. “He brought folks together to try to come up with the future of energy in the State of Florida… We’re really happy to have gotten something accomplished.”
Like the others, Berman stressed that it is just the beginning.
“I’d like to see us be a lot more aggressive,” she said. “You could put solar on your roof if somebody would finance it, and I’d like to see Florida have a similar business model as that. We need to have broader, spread-out use of solar power.”
Pafford said he thought the committee chairman kept the bill relatively simple so it would pass.
“I think what we as a state and as leaders must do,” he added, “is really get behind projects that make sense, and really sell a policy to our constituents. I don’t think we do a great job with that.”
He added that the federal government could play a large role in Florida’s energy development “if we are willing to accept that.”
Plakon explained his view: “Everything has to be done in the context of what’s happening… A lot of families are struggling… that’s why we really took rate increases off the table right in the beginning. This baby step is about as good as we can do this year, but this baby step can turn into a bigger step later on.”
Plakon said it sets the foundation for when the economy does turn around.
“We’ll be poised to take advantage,” he said. “I would look at what we did as throwing a carrot out there, and asking companies to go ahead first and prove that you can do what you say you can do, as opposed to writing a check and hoping for the best on behalf of taxpayers.”