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Senate approves renewable energy bill, rejects opening door to competitors

A proposal to open the Florida electric market to small-scale renewable energy production was squelched by the Senate energy committee on Monday by a 10-4 vote, as they passed a renewable energy bill that allows the state's largest utilities to raise rates $400 million over five years.

The proposal, by Sen. Thad Altman, a Viera Republican, would have required that 20 percent of the renewable energy to go to smaller companies, not just the electric monopolies.

"This is an idea whose time is right,'' Altman said. He said that the era is over for one-source energy production and an energy market dominated by the electric monopoly. “This is an opportunity to allow our small producers get a chance so they can succeed."

The committee gave the solar industry a smaller consolation prize, however, voting to require that 5 percent of the renewable energy authorized would go to small scale solar projects and requiring homeowners who produce excess energy from their rooftop solar to be allowed to sell it back to the industry.


To a packed hearing room, Sen. Lisbeth Benacquisto described her bill to open the door for more large-scale solar power plants built by Florida’s electricity giants. She describe it as a bill about energy conservation as it allows public utilities to perform a free enrgy audit of commercial properties.

The committee capped the cost of the renewable projects at 2 percent of a customers' monthly electricity bill, but rejected an amendment by Sen. Mike Fasano that would have made it a one-time increase to the utility bill, rather than one that continues over the five years.

Benacquisto, R-Wellington, suggested that the bill was "not a blank check" for the utilities. “This is the strongest statement that has ever been contemplated before…we will not let this industry take hold at the expense of the ratepayer,’’ said Benaquisto, the chairwoman of the committee. 

But former Pubic Service Commissioner Nathan Skop warned the committee that the greatest beneficiary of the bill, Florida Power & Light, already charges customers $1.01 per month for its solar energy plants and the bill would allow them to raise rates another $2.40 a month. Progress Energy, by constrast would be allowed to raise rates as much as $3.81 a month but is not supporting the bill. 

"This is a legislative tax on Florida ratepayers," Skop said, adding it was also a handout to FPL, which has raised its dividends 15 percent since its rate increase was rejected by the PSC.

Speaking for the bill was the Florida Chamber of Commerce lobbyist David Hart who said it was needed to meet the future growth in demand for electricity. But Fasano challenged him:

"So the chamber has changed its position and supports a tax increase? he asked. "It's a $350-400 million tax increase each year. That includes the businesses that belong to the local chambers."

Hart said he believes the rate increase is a "small amount to pay" and added "we don't view it as a tax increase."