April 10, 2010

Florida House committee approves renewable energy bill

A Florida House committee gave approval Friday to a bill that uses tax breaks, government-backed loans and $400 million of electricity rate hikes in an attempt to spark a renewable energy revolution in Florida and drive down the use of fossil fuels.

The bill, approved 10-1 by the House Energy and Utilities Policy Council, was hailed by House supporters for encouraging the voluntary development of solar energy, biomass and other clean energy sources without requiring electric companies to adhere to expensive mandates to lower their fossil fuel consumption.

Environmentalists called it a good first step but lamented the absence of a renewable-energy standard that other states have used to force a cleanup of the way they produce power.

But the loudest critic was a lobbyist for the state's largest utility companies, Terry Deason. The former chairman of the Public Service Commission represents Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy, Tampa Electric and Gulf Power.  His complaint was not about the $400 million the measure allows the companies to charge customers to develop 735 megawatts of solar power but about the requirement that it buy electricity from companies that generate power by burning biomass -- plant and animal materials -- at 80 percent of what it cost the companies to generate it.

The bill's passage in the committee was a watershed moment for the House which has debated but rejected renewable energy bills since Gov. Charlie Crist called for the measures shortly after taking office. Then, he called for a renewable energy standard that would require electric companies to increase their use of renewable energy by 20 percent by 2020, up from 2.5 percent today.

House Republicans have rejected that approach and, on Friday, defeated an amendment proposed by Rep. Joe Gibbons, a Hallandale Beach Democrat, that would have called for a modest 5 percent increase by 2020.

Crist, who has remained quiet on the issue this session, is hoping to sign into law a bill that will give at least 735 megawatts in additional solar energy to power companies.

The House proposal calls for spending $7.5 million in renewable energy incentives, allows the state to used federal stimulus money to create a loan guarantee program for companies developing alternative energy, and opens the door to more companies that want to install rooftop solar panels to generate their own power.

A similar proposal is expected to be heard next week in the Senate. But even House sponsors acknowledged the measures have a long way to go, especially with a $25 million price tag attached to the House bill.

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