County’s energy dividends wasted

The state allows utilities to set the rate it pays municipalities for electricity they produce.
The state allows utilities to set the rate it pays municipalities for electricity they produce. Miami Herald file

While Miami-Dade County’s size and diversity serve as its greatest asset, they also presents significant challenges, especially when it comes to maximizing public dollars to pay for critical needs such as health care, infrastructure, and very notably, public utilities.

With this in mind, it is unacceptable that Florida’s largest county and revenue generator is losing tens of millions of dollars at Miami Dade County’s Waste-To-Energy (WTE) Facility in Doral; money that could be spent on investing in our communities, or helping keep our taxes low.

Since 1985, our community has invested millions of dollars to construct and operate this WTE facility. The Doral facility employs nearly 200 people to process a staggering 1.2 million tons of garbage each year, which otherwise would have been landfilled, and generates enough renewable electricity to power the plant and 45,000 homes. This facility has resulted in the savings of landfill space that would be the size of Disney’s Magic Kingdom stacked more than 24 stories high.

That is absolutely incredible. This is exactly the type of smart government, urban planning our county needs. However, our return on this investment is not nearly what it should be, because the county gets shortchanged by millions when they are forced to sell this homemade power to utility companies for five times less than what would be reasonable. In the last three years, Miami-Dade County has lost $38 million in energy revenue.

How is this happening?

Florida’s power companies, such as Florida Power & Light, are regulated by the state through the Public Service Commission (PSC), which relies on archaic rules and laws to let the power companies calculate the price they pay others who produce energy in Miami-Dade County.

As power contracts for these facilities expire, as did Miami-Dade’s in 2013, the utilities are paying dramatically less for the electricity they produce and even significantly less than what it costs for the utilities to produce their own power, while continuing to raise rates for customers in Miami-Dade. This has caused a massive revenue loss to the county, money that should be returned to the taxpayer and not the shareholders of the utility companies.

To make things worse, Miami-Dade County is prohibited by law and regulation from using its own power generated by the WTE facility in Doral. They are forced to buy power from utility companies to use at the airport, water plant, or even county office buildings at a rate five times more than what the county could sell its homegrown energy in Doral. This sacrifices Miami-Dade’s energy independence and is costing taxpayers their hard-earned dollars. It’s unfair, irresponsible, and leaving our community out to dry.

So how can we justify paying the county so little for our power? Because the law lets them get away with it.

We are not alone. Communities all over the state are in the same position, losing tens of millions of dollars every year. In the next seven years, the total loss is expected to balloon to almost $200 million every year. How many roads could that build? How many kids could that educate? How many elderly could that help?

How do we solve this problem and make the most out of the hard-earned money our government collects? State lawmakers can to pass legislation that encourages local energy independence and innovative, creative ways for municipalities to take advantage of their public investments. As a public servant to Miami-Dade County, I look forward to the discussion and debate on how we can reach a solution to this problem.

Rene Garcia represents District 36 in Miami in the Florida Senate.