US: Sunshine state retreats further into solar shadows

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The Sunshine State of Florida is turning its back on exploring its vast solar potential after the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) voted to cut energy efficiency targets and allow to lapse a solar rebate program next year.

The PSC has voted 3-2 in favor of energy efficiency cuts – a proposal put forward by Florida’s largest utilities, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light. The targets, which set a goal of a 90% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020, will no longer be pursued.

The vote has attracted the scorn of local solar advocates, with The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy – a pro-solar campaign group – calling the vote "an abdication [of PSC’s] responsibility as stewards for energy consumers".

The PSC’s decision to also allow the current solar rebate program to expire at the end of 2015 was also criticized, although the commission did announce plans to hold a workshop next year to discuss ways in which the state could implement cost-effective solar programs in the future.

Commissioner Lisa Edgar voted against the proposals, stating that the reduction of utilities’ energy targets was “not the direction I want to go in”, calling the vote a stark and depressing message that revealed exactly where Florida’s stance lay on matters relating to green energy

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) went further, denigrating the PSC for "siding with monopoly utility shareholder" rather than customers, and effectively halting the development of solar and other renewable energies by "setting meager goals that promote the construction of new power plants – which earn the companies a hefty profit".

"The line between the PSC and the monopoly utilities they are charged with regulating has become increasingly blurred,” SACE added.

Community support

Solar’s largely untapped potential in the Sunshine State has not gone unnoticed. In October a number of locals rallied outside of the headquarters of Florida’s Duke Energy, calling on the utility to back solar power, with SACE executive director Stephen Smith accusing the big utilities of holding back progress – aided by the PSC’s compliance.

"Nobody is holding these utilities accountable," he told ThinkProgress last month. "We have had a breakdown in regulatory oversight, and it is corrupting the process."

Florida remains drastically behind the curve in terms of solar deployment and policy. The state forbids solar leasing or power purchase agreement – a situation that will do little to improve its standing as the 18th-placed for total PV capacity installed. In terms of solar irradiation levels, the state ranks third.

Governor Rick Scott – who recently secured a second term at the expense of pro-solar challenger Charlie Crist – is considered to be avowedly anti-renewables, with utilities in the state believed to have donated more than $3.55 million to Crist’s election campaign in September.

All the while, Florida remains one of the states most at risk from the effects of climate change.

A recent National Climate Assessment by the White House found that Southeast Florida, an area of low-lying coastline and swampland, is at extreme risk from rising sea levels. “Just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean,” said the report.