GOP kills Florida solar, takes the sun out of Sunshine State

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Florida right-wing state regulators launched an attack against solar energy on Nov. 25, when they approved proposals to slash the state's energy efficiency goals by over 90 percent and terminate solar rebate programs by the end of 2015. This was done in order to appease investor-owned utilities that contribute to climate change, including Duke Energy, Tampa Electric, and Florida Power & Light (FPL) - the three companies that submitted the proposal.

The decision came after two hours of debate, with members of the state Public Service Commission (PSC) voting 3-2 in favor of the plan. The two commissioners who gave a "No" vote were Lisa Edgar and Julie Brown, who said that they would not agree with a plan that altered state energy policy so severely. "It's not the direction I would go in," Edgar remarked.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), which stood in opposition to the utility proposals, said this was "completely inconsistent with what the other states are doing. We believe there may have been laws broken today by not setting goals." In other words, he underscored the need for utilities, under law, to have some policy for meeting energy efficiency requirements. "It's a very sad day for the state of Florida," he concluded.

What this means is that the Sunshine State, which has been called "ground zero for climate change" by some environmental experts, will see less clean energy projects and further development of utilities that promote the use of fossil fuels. The state PSC approved Duke Energy for a $1.5 billion natural gas plant that will replace a disused nuclear plant in Crystal River, Florida. Duke, along with the other two companies, insisted during their proposals that solar rebate programs are not cost-effective, and argued that they would furthermore reduce rates for customers starting Jan. 1. That "reduction" is a meager 16 cents for Duke ratepayers,  $1.14 for Tampa Electric, and $1.94 for FPL. And most of those savings, reported the Tampa Bay Times, are the result of lower fuel prices, which are beyond the utilities' control anyway.

"Today, the PSC failed Florida families by caving to big polluters," said Kelly Martin, senior representative of the Florida Sierra Club. "Florida already ranks in the bottom half of the nation for energy efficiency, and now will only fall farther behind, costing families and businesses in the process."

Back in October, Florida residents and environmentalists took to the streets in St. Petersburg to vocally oppose the proposals of these utilities, rallying outside Duke Energy's office and calling for the state to embrace solar energy. The demonstration drew an estimated 150-200 people and was organized by SACE, whose executive director Smith added, "We've seen that [Republican state governor] Rick Scott's administration has done nothing to support solar power. The Public Service Commission under his watch has been very hostile and critical of solar power."

Scott, who this year won re-election against Democrat Charlie Crist, is a notorious climate change denier, and according to Reuters "supported utility rate hikes to cover massive investments in new power lines, natural gas pipelines, and nuclear power plants that environmentalists oppose, while the state's renewable energy programs, including solar installation rebates, were dismantled." According to Grist.org, Scott also rejected federal stimulus dollars to build a high-speed rail line in the state, which is badly lacking public transportation.

Republicans and big corporations, as per the usual, are inhibiting a state's ability to gravitate toward clean energy at a time when it has never been more important. Experts agree that amongst the U.S. states most vulnerable to climate change, Florida is at the top of the list. Harold Wanless, chair of the University of Miami's geological sciences department, said that global warming could render the city of Miami "the American Atlantis" by the end of the century, when the area is expected to be entirely underwater. "Miami is doomed," he declared. "Flooding everywhere, pooling in streets, flooding parking lots, turning intersections into submarine crossings - that is what global warming will look like."

Meanwhile, said Smith, when it comes to pro-fossil fuel companies in Florida, "nobody's holding these guys accountable. We have had a breakdown in regulatory oversight." And the line between the Public Service Commission "and the monopoly utilities they are charged with regulating is becoming increasingly blurred." In an official statement, SACE added that the PSC's vote represented "an abdication of its responsibility as steward for energy consumers. We as an organization are going to try and find every outlet possible to continue to fight."

Photo: A worker installs a solar panel. Bob Leverone/AP