Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida utilities stay shady in the Sunshine State

When they hear the term “Sunshine State,” executives of Florida’s electric utilities hear danger.

Not just because Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy and the like are rich, scheming, greedy monopolies that regard renewable energy as an existential threat. (Either to mankind or their stockholders; I can’t remember which.)

No, no, no. It’s because the power companies love their customers so much, they feel duty-bound to protect us from the deadly perils of a giant fiery ball of thermonuclear fusion, that 27-million-degree Fahrenheit threat to their buddies in the fossil fuel industry.

If FPL and Duke embraced solar energy, it might summon up gloomy associations with maladies like skin cancer and melanoma. (Admittedly, the same thing, but I needed to pad the list.) Utility executives don’t officially believe in global warming, but if they did, they’d blame it on solar power.

They’re determined not to let us Floridians get caught out like Icarus, the mythological flying Greek who messed around with solar energy and ended up taking an ignominious nosedive.

Florida’s utilities are so worried about the hazards of sunshine, according to a study by Integrity Florida released in March, that the state’s electric utilities contributed more than $18 million to state-level candidates and political parties between the 2004 and 2012 election cycles — just trying to get the word out.

The four largest electric outfits — FPL, Duke Energy, TECO Energy and Gulf Power — together spent $12.5 million between 2007 and 2013 on lobbyists (led by FPL’s $4.7 million). It was enough, Integrity Florida noted, that the four companies were able to register, “on average, one lobbyist for every two state legislators each legislative session between 2007 and 2013.”

That might seem a bit excessive, but they needed to buy themselves that kind of influence to keep Florida from going off on some solar energy bender. Else, we’d end up like California or New York or New England or New Jersey or North Carolina with thousands of solar panels festooned willy-nilly on rooftops, sucking profits out of big-boy power companies.

But thanks to campaign contributions and lobbying and a misnomer called the Florida Public Service Commission, the Sunshine State — the third sunniest state in the nation — ranked 12th in solar power output last year and 18th among states installing new solar capacity.

Florida utilities operate a few token solar operations, just enough to allow them to run PR campaigns depicting themselves as cuddly “green” companies. FPL, for example, generates a paltry one-tenth of 1percent of its power from solar. But they really, really don’t want outside competitors installing their own solar power operations. Sure, they’ll allow the occasional homeowner to install solar panels and sell excess energy back to the power company, but not retailers.

And their boys in the Legislature have beaten down proposals to give homeowners and businesses tax incentives to install their own solar panels. In the 2014 legislative session, bills designed to encourage new solar power installations “never got out of committee, never even got a hearing,” said George Cavros, legal counsel for the nonprofit group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

He noted that the utilities, who call solar energy programs risky and “disruptive,” have also asked the PSC to get rid of those niggling energy efficiency and conservation goals meant to encourage renewable energy projects .

Besides, as Duke Energy President Alex Glenn explained to state lawmakers, Florida is not always so sunny. “We’re also the partly cloudy state,” he said.

Oddly, folks up in Georgia, not exactly a hippie, liberal bastion, are going great guns on solar. That state’s big utility, Georgia Power, promises to be cranking out 900 megawatts from new solar installations by 2016. (Sunny Florida is slouching along with 225 megawatts.)

Cavros noted that however unenthused FPL might be about solar in Florida, the utility’s sister company, NextEra Energy Resources, was among the winning subcontractors bidding on Georgia’s big solar projects.

Lefty environmentalists had less to do with the Peach State’s embrace of solar power force than a relentless harangue from Georgia’s very powerful Tea Party, which saw the right of individuals to install solar panels and circumvent an all-powerful, politically connected monopoly as a basic libertarian issue.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, has now carried the fight to Florida. “The difference between Florida and Georgia is conservatives are leading the way to push for more solar and to allow freedom,” Dooley told the Tampa Bay Times. “In Florida, [conservatives] put up roadblocks. It’s appalling,” she said. “The Republicans should be leading the way for Florida in this. It’s violating free-market principles.”

Dooley, via email, told me Saturday, “I know how hard the utilities will fight, but don’t underestimate how hard I will fight. I am a bare-knuckled brawler. I fight to win and don’t give up and just keep coming.”

But Green Tea Debbie underestimates how far Florida electric monopolies will go toward protecting their customers from dangerous alternatives to fossil fuel power plants. For example, since 2006 power companies have collected billions from rate-payers to finance the hypothetical, future construction of nuclear power plants, which we all know might become very hazardous in Florida, given rising sea levels.

So, to protect Florida consumers, Duke Energy won’t actually build, say, an insanely expensive new nuke plant in Levy County. That way everybody’s happy. Duke gets lots of extra money. And its beloved customers won’t need to worry about a Levy County version of Fukushima.

Duke Energy President Alex Glenn was right. As far as the utilities are concerned, it’s always partly cloudy here in the Sunshine State.