By Michael Dobson

In Florida, solar-and-wind-2the defeat of utility backed Amendment 1 was resounding, it allowed Florida’s rooftop solar activist to bask in the glow of victory, If only momentarily. Hence, a prolonged victory dance would be unwise, as the win did nothing to shift the levers of power that guide the energy debate. Not  with standing a state legislature entrenched in its opposition to climate change policy,  Trumps picks to lead the federal agencies that determine climate policy like the Department of Energy, the Department of Environmental Protection and Office of Secretary of State,   does not portend a lovefest on climate change policy. Contrarily, Trumps  Washington will work feverishly to eliminate all the gains made, and will move with military precision to  stifle further gains in climate change and renewable energy policy.  In our own back yard, although improved upon, there has been only tepid tangible support for the residential rooftop solar industry. Also, private investors in  large utility scale independent solar production, biofuels production , off shore wind and tidal wave energy have been simultaneously  dissuaded by a patchwork of short-term, uncertain and intermittent tax and policy incentives that often differ from state to state,  and often swing with the political winds.

But paradoxically, because of their ability to pass cost along  to rate payers, Florida’s major utilities have in fact built large-scale solar facilities on its grid. However, they have done so  only when the solar arrays are owned and operated by the utility itself. In the end, that hard  truth does not bode well for the concept of having an open and competitive market whereby large scale independent entrepreneurs who create thousands of new jobs get to flourish in the sunshine state. Consequently, the joke among renewable energy lobbyist around the country for many years has been the fact that companies like FPL used subsidiary companies to build large scale solar farms in other states whose leaders  have established renewable energy portfolio standards and other incentives, while at the same time, fighting tooth and nail to make sure those same pro independent energy production policies  never exist in Florida, their home state. As an example, in its 2001 press release announcing one of the largest independent power projects in  California, a 517 megawatt natural gas facility in Blythe California, FPL also reminds us that the same subsidiary ( FPL Energy, LLC)  as an independent producer,  has another 542 megawatts of independent power projects on California’s grid using the renewable energy resources of solar and wind, in a state that has the nations most progressive  Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard(RPS). Also,  In 2001, FPL Energy , LLC, Inc  (as an independent power producer) owned a net of 4,300 megawatts of electricity in 13 states with industry friendly  policies that created competitive environments  friendly to independent power production. Renamed NextEra Energy Resources, LLC in 2009, its footprint in the U.S and abroad  as an independent  power producer has continued to grow. In 2015, Tampa Energy and subsidiary of TECO Energy announced plans to build a 25 megawatt solar facility, the largest in Tampa, second to its very first one, a 2 megawatt array at the Tampa International Airport, which it (TECO) will also own and operate on its grid.   One can only have admiration for what FPL, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and TECO has done in Florida, developing the blueprint for  how investor owned utilities can best increase their  renewable energy footprints in-house and on their grids in a way that is best for their stockholders, which  is innate to their business model. But, to keep all honest,  it is the job of a pro-business and open market legislature to recognize that current policy does not allow for a political and regulatory environment in which truly independent and entrepreneurial power producers can exist and do business in Florida as long as the largest and most successful utilities are allowed to be the gatekeeper whom ultimately dictate whether or not it has competitors.

The economics and political realities cross in the cleareyed  question of:  how does one make it a good deal for the shareholders of large utility companies (who also own the power grid), when independent producers own energy production projects that are on their grids? Other states have found ways, and that way has begun by first having the political courage to govern and regulate in accordance to stated principles of support for open and competitive markets irrespective of long-standing relationships.  The regulatory scheme in Florida is such that citizens are precluded from selling energy generated by them to a neighbor or coop,  creating their own energy. Nor can a citizen  purchase power   from a neighbor or neighborhood coop. Ultimately,  Floridians are hamstrung to line the pocket of utility company shareholders in what is a rigged game. It’s a rigged game that provides for a regulatory monopoly that exist under an outdated  faux idea that only allows for   centralized big box publicly traded companies, municipal utilities, or electric utility cooperatives  to  provide energy in rule and law, denying others entry into the marketplace,  as a faux  national security must do. The opposite is true, as this model makes our energy systems an even easier target for potential widespread crippling cyber terror attacks; and by attacking  a single big box utility system,  an enemy could cripple a region or entire state.. to give a crushing blow to commerce and security. The latter fact was  elaborated upon to the  Florida legislature by former US CIA Director James Woolsey in 2009 when he said we need to move toward distributive energy generation for the sake of national security.

The realities explored here will persist and will only cease when elected leaders regain their independence from the moneyed interest that prevails in our politics. The madness will only cease when leaders can truly take contributions from deep pocket utility companies and at the same time vote contrary to the dividend desires of their stockholders. The  time is not now.  And, because of the vicious rapidity and lasting impact of well-orchestrated campaign attacks via instantaneous and far-reaching social media; political leaders eager to win reelection   are rarely if ever willing to exercise the political courage of yesteryear out of fear of being targeted in their next election. This phenomenon was revealed to this writer when, as a lobbyist in 2003, lobbied for a well-meaning cause that was opposed by one of the deep pocket interest groups in our state capitol. At a final crossroad, this writer was called into the office of a key legislator to receive the news that the bill would die. When the legislator was asked the naïve question, “how is it possible that he ( the legislator) was letting one single  organization ( not the legislator) decide that the bill  had to die” …..and that he was doing their biding, the representatives answer was , “ last year that organization spent $80,000 to defeat me, and I barely won reelection, and I’m not willing to face that again. Therefore, your bill is dead”. The latter was communicated in real life and is a classic example of the multifaceted transactional nature of our  politics. These realities leave the renewable energy lobby at the starting gates, allowing for only the incremental and nuanced policy changes that if its measure would be millimeters instead of inches of progress; it would represent only the changes that the opposition would allow, through their power and influence . Therefore, the renewable energy lobby consistently find themselves making compromises with an opposition that always wins…..sort of like betting against the house, when the house always wins.  Perhaps if the renewable energy lobby themselves could be counted on at election time, providing campaign contributions as well as warm bodies in their supporters campaign offices,  political courage could then surface. Today's political courage exist only in rhetoric, as a candidates need for more and more money to win makes political courage a relic that cannot be afforded.

Problem number two for the renewable energy lobby is its need for more pointed messaging. In  an unscientific poll of 20 people, you will learn that most citizens concerns about electricity goes no further than (a) whether or not the lights come on when the switch is flicked, and (b) that utility services are not too expensive. The case for renewable energy most be more compelling. Whether or not the electricity was generated by coal, nuclear, gas , biomass, solar , geothermal or wind does not matter to the most general of Florida’s population. The case has to be made by the renewable energy activist groups in a coordinated messaging campaign.

Additionally, the green  jobs created must be better defined in an honest debate.  The suggested increase in domestic income and production resulting from an increase in renewable energy must also be defined .  Otherwise,  the renewable energy lobby seeks to win by only appealing to whatever feel good nature our leaders may have , which has not reaped significant lasting improvements .

In the new political reality, there are opportunities for the renewable energy industry if it is willing to make their case as job creators and as a driver for improving our standing in domestic production; proving that the opposite is true, that renewable energy does not make our manufacturing less competitive.  These opportunities  are realized when leaders know and see the contributions to our economy resulting from a robust renewable energy industry in Florida. The renewable energy industry has a compelling story to tell. it simply need to learn to tell it. It needs to quantify their value to our economy , which will give our leaders the undeniable facts , otherwise never spoken, that will provide supportive policy leaders the undisputed  facts that allow them to  withstand the overtures and threats of the powerful, in favor of more renewable energy. Our failure at doing so  today, will continue to relegate the  renewable energy industry to being considered by many a perpetual  cottage industry. Renewable energy advocates are asked to look in the mirror and acknowledge their shortcomings, and act on that knowledge so that the opportunities in front of them are a collective success for the industry at large. Those are the real challenges of the renewable energy lobby. That challenge is  to fight their own worst instincts ... that is, the selling of the dream by holding it up as only clouds, rather than as the grounded economic facts that are securely on their sides. It’s now time to examine the truth,  and messaging that truth with the economic arithmetic that show the industry as a cornerstone for economic growth through its innovation and environmental stewardship. That is not only a winning message, but also points our nation forward toward more economic growth, security and prosperity.

Michael Dobson, is a long time Tallahassee based governmental relations professional and columnist; President/CEO of Dobson, Craig and Associates (aka Dobson and Associates), and renewable energy policy leader as founder of Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association. Can be reached at michael@michaeldobson.org




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