Florida’s Bright (Green) Idea: Renewable Standards
By RUSSELL RAY
Thirty-one states have one.
Florida may be the next state to adopt a standard for generating electricity from renewable resources.
No one knows for sure what the standard will be, as legislators weigh the options offered by lobbyists from the power industry and environmental groups.
But the state’s electric utilities say a mandate for renewable power is almost certain and are making plans to secure more solar power, wind power and power made from biomass.
This month, Tampa Electric Co. announced a partnership to build what may be one of the nation’s largest solar power plants near Mulberry in Polk County. Tampa Electric President Chuck Black said the utility made the deal "to get ahead of the requirements that we think are coming out of the Legislature this year."
Requiring electric utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2020 is the standard supported by Gov. Charlie Crist and recommended by the Florida Public Service Commission.
The state now generates less than 3 percent of its power from renewable resources.
The PSC’s recommendation was based largely on a study by Navigant Consulting, which gauged the state’s potential for generating renewable power.
Florida utilities could generate at least 24 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2020, the study found.
The study also showed that Florida could generate 3,800 megawatts of solar power and create more than 100,000 jobs if a 20 percent standard is adopted, regardless of when. According to Navigant, each megawatt would create 15 to 30 jobs.
But renewable power is more expensive than power made from coal and natural gas. If the state moves too fast, the cost of electricity could surge to unreasonable levels, said Mike Twomey, a consumer advocate for AARP.
Solar power, for example, costs about 32 cents per kilowatt hour to produce, three times more expensive than coal-fired power, he said.
In these tough economic times, consumers can’t afford to pay much more for electricity, Twomey said.
"We’ve got record unemployment, record foreclosures and record numbers of people being disconnected at current rates," he said. "This will make it even worse."
Pointing to requests by Progress Energy and Tampa Electric to raise base service rates, Twomey said electric bills are going to rise even without a requirement to produce more expensive renewable power.
Some are counting on the development of renewable energy as a way to bring more jobs to Florida.
But job creation should not be one of the goals of a renewable portfolio standard, Twomey said.
"If you want to increase jobs, do it through tax policy and economic policy, not through electric rates," he said.
Thirty-one states have adopted renewable portfolio standards for electric utilities, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In California, utilities must generate 20 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020. In Arizona, the goal is 15 percent by 2025. In North Carolina, it’s 12.5 percent by 2021. In three states, Missouri, Virginia and Vermont, the goals are voluntary.
The case for a national renewable portfolio standard is gaining momentum in discussions on Capitol Hill, said Julia Hamm, executive director of the Solar Electric Power Association, a nonprofit group that represents solar manufacturers and utilities.
"We’re seeing utilities across the country begin to recognize that they can’t continue with the status quo," Hamm said.
Hamm pointed to a series of solar projects throughout the country, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s plan to build a 250-megawatt solar-panel power plant in California.
Although solar power is three times more expensive than coal-fired power, it won’t be long before the cost is competitive with coal as improvements in solar technology take shape, Hamm said.
"At a point not too far in the future, it likely is going to be the same price or even less expensive than their other options," she said.
Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, the state’s largest electric utilities, want to count nuclear power toward whatever goal the Legislature adopts. Lawmakers may consider establishing a "clean energy" standard instead of a renewable standard to accommodate emission-free nuclear power.
Already, nuclear power accounts for 18 percent of the electricity produced by Progress Energy. FPL produces about 19 percent of its power from nuclear plants. Both companies plan to build new nuclear plants in the next 10 years.
A standard that includes nuclear power means Progress Energy and FPL would not have to add renewable power to meet a 20 percent goal.
Twomey said he thinks the state should include nuclear power if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gases. What’s more, the cost to generate nuclear power is significantly lower than the cost to make it from coal, gas and renewable sources, he said.
"I think they’re safe and the fuel is inexpensive," Twomey said. "They put out a lot of electricity at a lower cost."
But because of concerns over potential accidents at power plants and the disposal of nuclear waste, nuclear power still is controversial. Of the 31 states that have renewable portfolio standards, Ohio is the only state that includes nuclear power.
The PSC proposal approved in January calls for utilities to spend 75 percent of their costs to develop renewable power on wind and solar projects, a provision utilities oppose because they say it could drive consumer costs to unreasonable levels.
The PSC’s proposal, approved unanimously, recommends the state’s utilities get 20 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2020. Under the proposal, utilities must get 7 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2013, 18 percent by 2019 and 20 percent by 2020.