Part Two – a Renewable Energy Pilot Program for Sarasota

This is a reprint of my article for Creative Loafing

Lighting a fire for a renewable energy pilot program in Sarasota

While the citizens of Sarasota are very supportive of renewable energy and promote sustainability, our state representatives pretty much ignored any renewable energy legislation that was introduced this past legislative session. Rep. Keith Fitzgerald wrote a bill for a Feed-In Tariff (now called the Renewable Energy Dividend) that would have created legislation requiring all utilities within the state of Florida (municipal or otherwise) to purchase energy at a retail rate from residents and businesses who elected to participate in the program. These participants would generate energy themselves by placing solar panels on their homes, fields, or buildings and hooking up to the grid through net metering. They would then sell any unused electricity back to the utility company for a profit to help offset the costs of the equipmen

The purpose of this bill was to support a renewable energy market that would create jobs and promote industry. This bill had bipartisan support in the House, but was never introduced for a vote.

On June 19, at a Florida Power and Light (FPL) hearing in Sarasota that allowed our residents to voice their opinions about a rate hike request, the attendees also saw in attendance our elected officials: State Reps. Keith Fitzgerald and Doug Holder, Vice Mayor Kelly Kirschner, County Commissioners Jon Thaxton and Joe Barbetta, and representatives of the office of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan. A coalition had been formed with these elected officials just prior to the event to promote a pilot program in Sarasota that would establish a Renewable Energy Dividend (RED) program for residents. Sarasota does not own its own utility company and a few years back signed a 30-year lease with FPL. Wanting to have a similar RED program that is working right now in Gainesville, Sarasota will need to partner with FPL in order to do so.

Solar power is the main way most Floridians choose to create renewable energy. Here in Sarasota, the Triple J Ranch has installed a $500,000 solar array on two of its horse barns; they now provide more than 90 percent of the ranch’s energy. The owners of the Triple J felt a responsibility to not only make their operation more energy-efficient, but they also wanted do their part in protecting the environment against climate change. Taking advantage of the state and federal stimulus programs that are in place to support such efforts, they are also expecting to receive a good portion of their costs back, along with a tax credit.

So far, Triple J’s experience has been far from perfect. The ranch claims that FPL unnecessarily held up installation for months before they were granted the proper certification for the project. The Triple J is also unhappy with the amount of money FPL actually pays for the energy it purchases. FPL sells the Triple J energy to its other customers at almost three times what it originally paid. The Triple J is also ahead of the curve on the stimulus programs and are finding that there are kinks in the system that have to be worked out before they receive the money that was promised. Altogether, it’s been a trying time for a company that was trying to do the right thing. This is where Rep. Fitzgerald’s bill would have offered help. The bill would have regulated this business arrangement between them and FPL.

Even though FPL is regulated by the Public Service Commission (PSC), they are still the only game in town when it comes to our energy. When others have decided to take on FPL through the state legislature, they are met with an incredible army of well-paid lobbyists who are prepared to protect FPL’s interests. Just recently, a viable contender met up in Tallahassee to support Fitzgerald’s bill: Florida Crystals (aka Domino Sugar). Wanting the same thing as the Triple J, Florida Crystals went to FPL first to see if a better deal could be worked out. FPL wasn’t interested in doing anything beyond what the state allowed, so Florida Crystals started pounding the pavement up in Tallahassee this past session pushing for a statewide RED. Even with Florida Crystals’ money and influence, the Renewable Energy Dividend went nowhere.

So where does this leave the citizens of Sarasota?

Well, a few local politicians have decided to do what the state couldn’t. This coming Monday, in partnership with FPL, there will be the first in several meetings that are planned to work out the details. They want Sarasota to be the first to have a pilot program that would incorporate the main idea of Fitzgerald’s bill and satisfy Sarasota’s desire to become a sustainable city, create green jobs and keep FPL’s commitment to a renewable energy future. When asked about his expectations of the upcoming meeting, Vice Mayor Kirschner replied, “We’re appreciative of FPL being so receptive to initiate this dialogue and looking to use Sarasota as a launching pad and test ground for their commitment to community and renewable energy in the state of Florida. It is our hope that FPL will be true partners with the greater Sarasota area to help us immediately strengthen and diversify our local economy with a future dedicated to renewable energy.”
Creative Loafing