Power Broker

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2007

Can FP&L solve the carbon problem?

Yes. In about 80,000 years.

That’s why electric utilities must be told by the state how to run their business, says state Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton).

You heard it right—that’s the Mike Bennett who went to Tallahassee seven years ago as a crusader to help businesspeople get the state off their backs. The Mike Bennett who owns an electric contractor company that makes most of its money with new-home construction in Manatee County. The Mike Bennett who has been railing against mangrove and manatee (the animal) protection regulations that make waterfront construction harder.

The senator, who’s become an advocate for the use of renewable energy over the past few years, sees the chairmanship of the powerful utility-regulating commission as his most important committee assignment so far. 

Bennett aired his frustration with utilities representatives during a February Public Service Commission workshop. He told the group that due to utility intransigence he would have to—again—sponsor a bill that would force FPL and its peers to use 4 percent or more renewable energy in their generation mix. More than 20 states have already adopted similar statutes.

For those who still don’t accept the premise that it’s us producing global warming, stop reading this column. For everybody else—by now probably the majority—the only answer is shrinking our carbon footprint by curbing CO2 emissions through more efficient transportation and electricity use.

It’s true we’re adding hybrid-electrics to our two-car commuter households. Unfortunately, the CO2-reduction effect of hybrids only works when the electric engine kicks in. And that’s not the case when we race up and down I-75 from our spanking new Lakewood Ranch “suburban village” to work in Tampa. Meanwhile, mass transit is not even figured into our suburban commuter equation.

At the same time, power consumption in Florida is predicted to rise 32 percent from 2004 through 2014 due mainly to population growth. Fifty-one percent of Florida’s electricity use is residential; therefore, it’s a no-brainer that more energy-efficient homes could make a big difference. Researchers with the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center recently equipped three typical Florida homes in different regions with off-the-shelf devices and concluded that the average power savings would be 40 percent and up. (If you’re looking for tips, try

So what makes Bennett so mad about investor-owned utilities? Utilities keep dragging their feet, insisting that renewable energy generation can only be implemented at an additional cost to consumers.

A glance at FPL’s Web site quickly reveals the core of the issue: The corporation can’t (or doesn’t want to) think beyond large-scale, centralized energy generation. In other words, a photovoltaic solar panel on every rooftop or a wind turbine on every farm isn’t even worth consideration from FPL’s executives.

Take FPL’s Sunshine Energy program. FPL is trying to sell us renewable energy—at a premium, coupled with the promise to build small solar projects in return. After two years, only 23,000 of FPL’s 4 million-plus customers have opted to buy into Sunshine Energy, translating into construction of 300 kilowatts worth of solar panels. That’s enough to feed—at most—100 households. If the program continues to grow at that pace, it would take FPL another 80,000 years to hook up all its customers to solar energy.

Taking the lead for those unwilling to wait for FPL to move, Sen. Bennett, jointly with Rep. Keith Fitzgerald (D-Sarasota), sponsored a “net metering” measure. Thirty-plus states are already forcing utilities to install “net” meters in the homes of people who generate their own electricity with alternative energy systems such as electro-voltaic solar panels. These meters run backwards when the solar panels on the roof produce more electricity than the home needs, allowing the homeowner to feed power to the grid.

So far in Florida, only two community-owned utilities in Florida, JEA (the former Jacksonville Electric Authority) and the New Smyrna Beach Utilities Commission, offer net metering programs.

And while utilities keep dragging their feet, some consumers are taking things into their own hands.

Josh Sankes, a Sarasota financial adviser, started a grassroots initiative at this year’s Leadership Sarasota class that has already prevented nearly 400,000 pounds of greenhouse gases from rising into the atmosphere simply by changing light bulbs. The group enlisted with the federal Energy Star program, secured $10,000 in Sarasota County funds, bought 4,000 fluorescent light bulbs, and began to collect pledges on the Web from Sarasotans willing to swap at least one incandescent bulb for an energy-saving fluorescent one. In exchange, pledgers get a free bulb in the mail.

Says Sankes: “We’re focusing on educating Sarasotans how easy it is to make a difference.”

If the 35-member Leadership Sarasota class meets its ambitious goal of 4,000 pledges for the “Change a Light, Change the World” drive by the end of May, it would rank third in the Energy Star program, behind only a Delaware state institution, a Georgia utility and the world’s largest light bulb manufacturer.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.

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