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Florida public utilities boast of solar output at St. Petersburg energy conference

Advocates for Floridians for Solar Choice say the central premise behind their attempt to have voters decide on a constitutional amendment is to make it cheaper for residents to buy solar power directly from a provider.

The group says the free market doesn’t work in Florida when it comes to renewable energy choices. There are 55 public utilities in the state, but current state law allows only the investor-owned utilities to do so.

Those same critics say power companies such as Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light and Tampa Electric have shown little inclination to develop solar power, compelling them to unite behind the drive for a constitutional amendment in 2016.

However, Buck Martinez, senior director for project development at Florida Power and Light, said keeping energy costs low in Florida “is why there’s no solar in Florida.” He said costs for solar have come down tremendously in recent years however, allowing his company to begin to offer it more often as a viable alternative source of energy.

His comments came during the first day of a two-day energy summit held at the Hilton Carillon Park in St. Petersburg.

As an indication of how much FP&L has changed its energy portfolio during the past three decades, Martinez said that when he began working at the utility in 1991, it burned 40 million barrels of petroleum year. Currently, it’s less than 150,000 barrels, a reduction of 99 percent. Sixty-six percent of their energy comes from natural gas, and another 21 percent from nuclear.

“Now we’re at a point where bringing solar into the mix … is not going to have an adverse effect on the cost to the customer,” Martinez said. The company announced in January it intends to build three solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants by the end of 2016.

Mike Anthiel is executive director with the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, an organization that strongly supports the constitutional amendment. He’s a bit more cynical about the utilities’ new enthusiasm for solar, as the drive for a constitutional amendment heats up. Anthiel said that while the utilities have an obligation to serve, as a consumer he has no obligation to be served. He said it’s about giving choice and competition to an electricity market “that’s been locked up for a longtime.”

Martinez repeated an age-old adage from the utilities in Florida on another criticism of renewable sources of energy like wind and solar: They’re not reliable because of changing weather conditions. He said FP&L recently purchased a meteorology company to help them forecast conditions.

Tamara Waldman is the director of Florida Distributed Generation Strategy with Duke Energy Florida. She said Duke is also committed to “those aspects of a clean energy future.” She also said Duke offers more than 1.1 million megawatt hours of renewables such as biomass, municipal solid waste, hydroelectric power, waste heat and solar PV. She also discussed Duke’s encouragement of its customers conserving energy (such as putting the heater at 68 degrees in the winter and 78 in the summer).

“We recognize that some of our customers are looking for more renewable choices,” she said, mentioning that the company received approval Wednesday to build, own and operate a 5-megawatt solar facility that will serve the Reedy Creek Improvement District near Orlando.

Shelly Aubuchon, program manager for Tampa Electric’s Renewable Energy programs said more than 1,000 customers have signed up to install new solar PV systems in homes and businesses in Hillsborough county, most getting no rebates. She also described TECO’s plans to install its first large-scale solar array at Tampa International Airport.

“We sell renewable energy,” she said. “The challenge is getting customers to participate. We have to spread the word.” She said a few thousand have been willing to pay more than the regular cost of energy.

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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