Florida clean power: the missing link

Florida may be touted as the Sunshine State, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at its meager use of solar electricity. New Jersey, with less than half Florida’s population and a seventh of its land area, has six times as much installed solar power. Snowy, chilly Massachusetts — with fewer people than New Jersey and just slightly more land — has more than triple Florida’s solar-generating capacity. Why is Florida, the nation’s third largest electricity consumer, so far behind in shifting at least a portion of its power to renewable energy?

Giving utilities the exclusive right to sell solar power is partly to blame. In 21 states plus Puerto Rico, solar companies can retain ownership of the solar arrays they install on residential and non-residential rooftops and then sell the generated electricity to the owners of those properties. This allows homeowners, businesses, non-profits, and government entities to access solar power without having to bear the substantial up-front costs of installing an array. Instead they pay a third-party owner an agreed-upon price for their sun-generated electricity.

The Florida Supreme Court has given Floridians for Solar Choice the green light to proceed with a ballot initiative that would lift the state’s ban on third-party power purchase agreements. If approved by voters next year, the initiative would very likely pick up the pace of residential and commercial solar installations, broadening public access to the state’s most abundant clean energy resource.

But there is another, more fundamental missing link in Florida’s solar policies. Sunshine State lawmakers have set no minimum standards for introducing renewable energy into Florida’s electricity mix. Renewable portfolio standards, as they are called, have been the primary drivers toward clean power generation across much of America. In 29 states plus the District of Columbia, utilities are busy ramping up their supplies of solar energy and other renewables to meet these standards.

Take another sunny state, California, as an example. By 2020, 33 percent of the electricity supplied to retail customers must come from solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy. To meet this standard, state agencies are working closely with investor-owned utilities and municipal power providers to develop both the physical infrastructure and the management capabilities to handle growing increments of clean power. Through this collaboration, California has already passed the 20 percent mark in its reliance on renewable energy and is on track for supplying a third of the state’s power from renewable sources by the 2020 deadline.

Even more California clean energy is on the way. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a new standard requiring utilities to supply fully half their power from renewable sources by 2030. And beyond that impressive threshold, state policymakers recognize the need to play a leading role in cutting at least 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. That’s what climate scientists say we need to do if we are to prevent global average temperatures from rising to the point where a slide toward climate disaster is unstoppable.

Rather than ignoring the need for a fundamental transformation in their power supply, California’s leaders are taking major steps to balance economic vitality with environmental sustainability. As they look to the future, they see opportunities for innovation, not obstacles to development.

With more than 2.5 million Florida homes already vulnerable to storm surges, one would hope that the state’s political leaders would recognize the need to minimize potentially catastrophic sea level rise in the decades ahead. Instead, Attorney General Pam Bondi has joined a multi-state lawsuit to block the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the first nationwide effort to reduce carbon emissions from our most polluting power plants. She also weighed in against third-party solar power when Floridians for Solar Choice made their case before the State’s Supreme Court.

What will it take for Florida politicians and utility executives to embrace the challenge of building a sustainable electricity sector, rather than denying the need to do so?

Philip Warburg, an environmental lawyer, is the author of two books on renewable energy, “Harness the Sun” and “Harvest the Wind”. He will speak at the Miami Book Fair at 4 p.m. on Nov. 21.