VOICES: President Obama visits Florida solar facility -- a trip filled with irony

obama_at_fpl_solar_facility.pngBy Dr. Stephen A. Smith, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

President Obama visited DeSoto County, Fla. last week to headline the opening ceremony of the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) facility in the country. This must signal that Florida is on its way to a clean energy future, right?

Well, not so fast. The facility is certainly a testament to thevital role renewable energy should play in meeting energy demand,creating jobs and reducing global warming pollution. Yet, the Florida legislature, Gov. Crist, and the Florida Public Service Commissionhave failed to implement meaningful clean energy policies to keep themomentum going after President Obama jets away from the Sunshine State.

For starters, Gov. Crist's clean energy initiatives, including an executive order calling for 20% of our electricity to be generated from renewable energy sources by 2020, have stalled in Tallahassee. Twenty-eight other stateshave implemented renewable targets as a way to promote investment,create jobs and protect customers from fossil fuel price spikes. Whyshould renewable energy developers invest in Florida, when other statesprovide incentives? Losing ground to other states in the clean energyeconomy is particularly poignant at a time of record unemployment in Florida. All told, less than 4% of Florida's energy demand is met by renewable energy -- and less than 1% of that is met with solar.

The 25-megawatt DeSoto facility that the president visited is owned by Florida Power and Light (FPL) and comes courtesy of aprovision in a 2008 state energy billthat allowed the utility to recover all its costs of this and two othersolar pilot projects -- totaling 110 megawatts. FPL should be applaudedfor jumping on the opportunity. Yet, it is crucial to also develop amarket for distributed solar energy that is owned by non-utility thirdparties. Creating certainty in the market is how we realize thebenefits of distributed solar energy. Unfortunately, the marketcertainty isn't there in Florida for private developers and individualhomeowners to invest in solar PV facilities.

The popular Florida Solar Energy System Incentive Programhas been hamstrung by insufficient funding for years and has nowstarted paying out rebates on backlogged applications thanks to federalstimulus dollars. The program is set to expire next year. One solar business association is so desperateto keep the dollars flowing into the state rebate program that they'vemade a conditional deal of support with proponents of offshore oildrilling if projected revenue will be directed to solar programs. Thestate of renewable energy in Florida is hardly a shining example forthe president to hold up as an example of the burgeoning clean energyeconomy.

Florida fares no better on the energy efficiency front. At least 17 statesin the nation are successfully achieving five to 10 times more energyefficiency than Florida's largest utilities. It's ironic that on thesame day we celebrated the Florida Legislature's solar success, the Public Service Commission was deciding whether to approve FPL's proposed efficiency goals for thenext 10 years when they are more than 10 times lower than efficiencygoals mandated by leading states.

Gov. Crist's call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Floridato 2000 year levels by 2017, and 80% below 1990 year levels by the year2050, has been mothballed. Rule-making workshops by Crist's Department of Environmental Protection, intended to produce an adopted greenhouse gas emission reduction rule by year's end, have been postponed indefinitely.

Even the governor has quietly forgotten about his clean energy initiatives as he positions himself to win his party's primary for U.S. Senate against conservative opponent Marco Rubio.

As President Obama stepped back on Air Force One, he left behind astate where renewable energy developers clamor for renewable targetsand incentives, customers desperately need relief from risingelectricity bills, families demand action on climate change, andunemployed workers hope for a new economic engine to spur the economy.The governor, legislature, and state agencies would be wise to leveragethe president's visit as a catalyst to get back on track toward settingrenewable energy targets, developing meaningful efficiency goals andcreating clean energy jobs in Florida.

Click here for Obama's speech at the opening ceremony of the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Center in Arcadia, Fla.

(A version of this editorial originally appeared at SACE's CleanEnergy Footprints blog.)

(Photo of President Obama speaking last week at the solar facility in Florida from FPL's website.)