Could the Upcoming Election Decide Florida’s Renewable Energy Fate?

As gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist noted in the recent debate, the corrupting influence of Florida’s electric utilities has blocked efforts to help Florida transition into a fair and free-market renewable energy economy. The impact of this powerful fossil fuel lobby has been demonstrated as they funnel resources to influence the outcome of the Florida governor’s race. Renewable energy, in particular solar energy, will without a doubt have a significantly positive economic impact on Florida’s natural and economic environment. But the first step for the Sunshine State is a changing of the guard in the executive office.

Billionaire Tom Steyer has made a significant personal investment to bring renewable energy to the forefront in Florida. Steyer’s NextGen Climate Super PAC has spent nearly $2 million on political ads attacking incumbent Governor Rick Scott. This resulted in little more than Governor Scott agreeing to a short meeting with climate scientists. Governor Scott’s views on renewables have still not evolved. During the recent debate he reiterated his standard line on solar saying, “it’s got to be reliable and it’s got to be cost-effective.” An expected answer straight out of the utilities and the fossil fuel sectors’ playbook.

Governor Scott’s views on this issue are in clear contrast with the campaign of former Republican Governor, now Democratic challenger Charlie Crist. Throughout the campaign Governor Crist has boasted about his solar support. It’s prompted environmental activists to host rallies across the state and put public pressure on regulators to crack down on Florida’s fossil-fuel-reliant electric utilities. Unfortunately, renewable energy issue is still not dominating the news cycle, but after the recent debate the distinction between the candidates is clear.

Even if former Governor Christ wins in November, Florida still has an uphill battle. The state gets nearly sixty percent of its energy from fossil fuel, mostly in the form of natural gas, and then an additional twenty one percent from burning coal. This is compared to renewable energy that generates only about 2.2 percent of the state’s household-energy use.  

Florida should be poised to be the next big solar state. The Sunshine State ranked 3rd in potential, but only 16th for capacity installed. The reason for such low renewable energy adoption rates stems from powerful electric utilities that support incremental state level policies as a way to maintain the fossil-fuel heavy status quo.

However, with many jobs and economic benefits at stake, renewables are not likely to go away anytime soon. The biggest issue for most U.S. utilities still lies ahead; whoever wins the upcoming election will also oversee Florida’s implementation of  the new federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules, known as rule 111(d), for reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants 30 percent less than their 2005 levels by 2030.

Many state policymakers are still looking backwards because it works for them politically. The majority party uses the same outdated political narratives, and continues to resist federal initiatives in the face of the necessity to change. And we should expect the Florida Republican party to continue fighting the EPA carbon-emissions regulations and support the electric utilities as they continue to fight against pro renewable energy policies in Florida.

Although Crist is pitching his intentions to be a “green” Governor, a state legislature with enough opposition could work against his renewable energy agenda. This will result in Florida continuing to lose ground, putting clean energy technology on a longer hold while increasing electric rates and utility construction costs get passed on to ratepayers. 

Ultimately, the voters can make a big statement on behalf of renewable energy this fall.  It’s up to them to both put pressure on incumbents and vote for elected officials who support policies that will bring more renewables like solar to the state.  Florida is behind the curve, but well positioned to join the growing list of states that have embraced solar.

Lead image: Florida flag via Shutterstock

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Lee Peterson is a licensed attorney and Senior Tax Manager for CohnReznick’s National Renewable Energy Practice. To date, Lee has been a critical tax advisor in over 10 billion dollars of renewable energy projects within the U.S. and its’ territories. He is responsible for thought-leadership and governmental affairs and his clients include the U.S. Department of Energy, Fortune 100 companies, state and local governments and domestic and foreign renewable energy project developers and manufacturers. Lee also advises the nation’s top financial institutions regarding their tax equity investment structures. Lee has published numerous articles in both the traditional and trade press, including, North American Windpower and Solar Industry magazine and he is regularly quoted in the media. Lee is also the author of numerous white papers on a wide range of critical renewable energy finance and tax topics and is a regular speaker at national professional education and industry events dealing with renewable energy policy, tax credit finance and federal and state tax policy. Lee volunteers hundreds of hours, pro bono, assisting non-profit renewable energy organizations, federal and state legislators as they seek to improve and implement new energy policies. For 10 years, Lee was an adjunct professor at Clayton State University and is a guest lecturer for the J. Mack Robinson MBA program at Georgia State University. Lee has also served as instructor for the State Bar of Georgia continuing legal education seminars.

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