Crist’s energy goals get a push
New federal policies may validate Crist’s failed ideas
By Zac Anderson
Published: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 at 11:52 p.m.
One of the first things Gov. Charlie Crist did when he moved into the governor’s mansion was put solar panels on the roof.
Crist often says that he hopes every Floridian will do the same. But his efforts to help make Florida a solar-friendly state have repeatedly been knocked down in the Legislature, leaving energy reform advocates despairing.
That changed last week when the federal government stepped in with big plans for clean energy that mirror many of Crist’s goals and help validate his agenda.
Florida is hardly a leader beyond Crist’s advocacy — state lawmakers are being dragged into the renewable energy market.
But political insiders say the federal regulations may go a long way to help convince lawmakers of the need for stronger incentives so that Florida businesses can take advantage of one of the largest regulatory shifts in U.S. history, a move that will touch every sector in the economy and create unprecedented demand for clean energy solutions.
"I hope this awakens the leadership in Tallahassee that we have to be proactive," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who helped pass the federal energy legislation through committee this week. "The states that are proactive will be able to draw down greater dollars for their citizens with rebates and other federal incentives, and the states won’t be subject to as many penalties."
Crist’s energy experts followed the legislation’s progress in Washington, D.C., last week.
First, President Barack Obama approved an order requiring vehicles in Florida and across the nation to get 35.5 miles per gallon on average by 2016, nearly identical to a Crist plan that was rejected by the Legislature.
Next, a congressional committee Thursday approved a plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions and require power companies to generate a percentage of their electricity from clean energy, just as Crist wanted for Florida. With Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, the comprehensive federal energy reforms seem to have a good chance of passing.
"On a broad scale, this federal legislation does practically everything we’ve been trying and failed to do in Florida," said state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole — the governor’s main energy point person — said the federal actions should build momentum in Tallahassee, where legislators have been cold to Crist’s plans.
"I think it’s helpful for the Legislature to see what’s happening on the national level, and I think it will help us move forward," Sole said Friday. "We’re getting geared up knowing some pretty key legislation didn’t pass this year."
Fitzgerald and other energy reform advocates say the federal rules in some ways preempt Crist’s agenda, but federal action also adds even more urgency to develop statewide clean energy incentive programs that help Florida businesses grow.
At a time when the U.S. government is poised to require cleaner technologies for power companies and heavy industry, Florida has very few businesses that could supply these products — and generate much-needed jobs. The state has not primed the market with incentive programs that are common elsewhere.
Yet business groups in Florida said this week they would be happy to let the federal government continue to take the lead on energy issues.
"We need one national standard, not a hodgepodge of state regulations," said Barney Bishop of Associated Industries of Florida. "We are concerned about the cost, but I feel better about this being done at a national level than in Florida because we shouldn’t bear all the costs."
Jerry Karnas, a Sarasota-based lobbyist for Environmental Defense, said Florida should still move forward with at least one of Crist’s energy goals, the 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 proposal. The plan in Congress requires less renewable energy that Crist wanted — 12 percent by 2020 — and will take longer than the governor sought.
On a practical level, Karnes said it is better to have the state pass its own laws. State regulators have more interaction with the utilities and can ensure greater accountability, he said.
The state legislation also provides a better road map for utilities to actually meet the target, instead of just handing them a vague goal.
"I do think that Florida will want and need its own framework for developing renewables," Karnas said. "Just because you have national goals doesn’t mean Florida has the framework to meet them."
Unlike New Jersey and California — where hundreds of millions in subsidies have been poured into the solar industry — Florida has no strong statewide incentives to help grow local renewable energy businesses and lure big players.
Florida’s $5 million solar rebate will not come close to meeting the federal mandates.
Crist may have less influence next year as a lame-duck governor running for U.S. Senate, and top Republican leaders in the House support oil drilling over expanding renewable energy.
But Sole said he expects energy reform to remain a high-profile issue in Florida.
"We’re not going to abandon some of the strong policies that we have identified," he said.