Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nuclear, coal are "clean" energy in Senate bill

A proposal to require Florida utilities by 2020 to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from "clean energy" sources including nuclear and coal was approved by a Senate committee today.

SB 1154 replaced a "renewable" energy requirement recommended by the Florida Public Service Commission with a "clean energy" requirement that includes nuclear and coal gasification technologies. Neither were included in a renewable standard proposed by the PSC in January.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville and the bill's sponsor, said nuclear energy providers pressed to have nuclear included. But he also said his proposal limits coal and nuclear to one-quarter of the new clean energy that can be counted toward the requirement.

"I had to figure out some way I could please both sides ... (to) make them both happy but not excited," King said.

And he seemed to have achieved that. Neither utilities nor environmental groups seemed thrilled in their comments on the bill, though neither were they harshly critical.

Another proposal contained in the bill to raise the gasoline tax by 1 cent per gallon raised the ire of some senators. Half of the $90 million raised annually would go toward renewable energy projects.

The Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities, which King chairs, approved SB 1154 by a 6-3 vote. The next stop is the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation.

King said he wasn't sure the House would approve the bill and that House leaders said they wanted to see the Senate version before the House acted.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 issued an executive order requiring 20 percent of energy to come from renewable sources. A bill adopted in 2008 directed the Public Service Commission to develop the proposal and submit it to the Legislature for approval.

The PSC said in January it should be left up to the Legislature to determine whether nuclear should be included in the "renewable portfolio standard." The commission said rate increases for renewable energy should be capped at 2 percent per year with 75 percent of the annual hike allotted for solar and wind.

The requirements apply to all utilities but there is no enforcement measure against municipal-owned utilities. And SB 1154 requires the PSC to excuse investor-owned utilities from the requirement if the cost of exceeds 2 percent of their annual electricity sales or there is not an adequate supply of clean energy.

Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Corp. have submitted applications for permits to construct new nuclear plants at or near their existing plants in the state. SB 1154 also allows utilities to purchase nuclear energy from outside Florida to meet the requirement.

An FP&L representative said the utility supports a clean energy requirement but not some aspects of the bill. He said annual limits on increases should be restructured to allow utilities to use any combination of clean energy technologies to meet the requirements.

"We think flexibility is important," said attorney Ken Hoffman, representing Florida Power & Light.

Environmental group representatives praised King for wading into complex energy issues. But they said also they were concerned about redefining the renewable energy requirement to allow nuclear and coal.

About 13 percent of energy in Florida now is produced by nuclear compared to 1 percent from renewable sources, said Debra Harrison, representing the World Wildlife Fund and a member of the Florida Energy and Climate Commission. And she said the 2 percent rate cap for renewable energy, costing $2.58 a month for the average household, may be too low.

"We need to jump-start renewable energy in this state," Harrison said. "And we can see there are places where this is being done in a truly aggressive way right now."

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