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Renewable Energy Standard Flickers

A Senate committee Wednesday followed the House's lead in turning out the lights on a renewable energy standard long-sought by environmentalists, approving a bill to increase the amount of renewable energy used by Florida power companies without requiring them to do so.

Like the House, the Senate plan calls for a package of incentives for the state to invest up to $7.5 million in renewable energy that would allow utilities to recover costs for electricity produced by technologies such as solar, wind and biomass. And, again like the House, it does not include a firm renewable energy standard like the increase of 20 percent by the year 2020 previously recommended by the Florida Public Service Commission. That proposal cleared the Senate in 2009, but fizzled in the House.

As originally filed, SB 1186 simply withdrew a requirement that the PSC come up with a renewable standard. The incentives were added as part of strike-all amendment that contained a less ambitious renewable program that did not include mandates.

Knowing the prospects for a mandate were dim, environmentalists continued to argue that setting a target would be the best way to spur investment in renewable energy, though supporters on the panel admitted that incentives were the best they could do now.

"This bill as it stands is not objectionable," Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said to Southern Alliance for Clean Energy lobbyist Susan Glickman. "It may not go far enough in your judgment, but it's not objectionable."

Glickman agreed, though she reminded the committee how far it was from the plan they approved last year.

“If our goal is to increase renewable, there is a reason that 29 states and D.C. have set targets for renewable,” she said. “A target is what creates the certainty in the market that unleashes the investment and that is the proven mechanism that encourages the development of renewable and also makes them cost-competitive. This committee and this Senate passed last year a target for renewable energy and it was not embraced by the House.”

The mandate-less renewable energy bill was approved by the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee 8-1. Last week, the House Energy & Utilities Committee voted down even a modest 5 percent increase in renewable use by 2020 proposed by Democrats on the panel.

The renewable energy standard once looked to have a bright future. With support from Republican Gov. Charlie Crist at the height of his popularity after taking office in 2007, the plan appeared to be on a fast-track. An exhaustive PSC recommendation process saw the commission largely side with environmentalists, who supported Crist’s 20 percent by 2020 executive order, over utilities, who worried about the cost to consumers of producing more electricity from renewable sources.

The late Sen. Jim King then muscled the plan through the Senate, convincing environmentalists to accept adding “clean” technologies such as nuclear, which they had fought to prevent the PSC from counting as renewable.

However, the plan never had much of a spark in the House, which pulled the plug on the plan on the last day of the 2009 session by not taking it up after receiving it from the Senate.

Wednesday, sponsor Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, echoed arguments King often made as he cajoled competing interests to set aside concerns about the renewable energy standard as it moved to the Senate floor last year.

“This legislation encourages investment in renewable energy that will immediately stimulate the state’s economy, significantly reduce unemployment and provide millions of new revenue to local government,” he said. “It creates a new industry benefitting small, medium and large businesses and encourages businesses to continue investing in clean, cutting edge technology resulting in a healthier and more diverse economy.”

There was little talk about what the new legislation does not do. Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who talked before session of picking up the renewable energy mantle this year in the Senate and introduced a bill that would have implemented the PSC’s 2009 recommendations (SB 774), declined this week to discuss the House legislation.

Another bill containing the changes King made to the renewable energy standard (SB 596), sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has not received a hearing this year.

Asked Wednesday if he supported the plan that vastly differed from the more ambitious proposal he talked of often before he entered a contentious Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, Gov. Crist admitted that he had not been tracking the renewable energy legislation much these days.

“I don’t really know enough about it to give a comment on it,” Crist told reporters after talking up rebates for energy efficient appliances.

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