While BP's oil gusher is an unmitigated disaster for the Gulf of Mexico, a Clean Energy Summit in Orlando warned Thursday that Florida has a power crisis in the making.
The Sunshine State, the nation's fourth-largest electric consumer, isn't even among the top 10 states in solar production.
Though Florida has 92 million tons of biomass available for energy production, biomass plants provide just a paltry 2 percent of the state's power needs.
Meantime, Florida utilities spend $30 billion a year to import fossil fuels to run their coal-, gas- and oil-fired power plants.
Lagging in the renewable power race is costing Floridians economically and environmentally, clean-energy experts warned at Thursday's summit.
Hosted by Citizens for Clean Energy, a nonprofit consortium of green-leaning businesses, the Orlando forum turned up the heat on the Florida Legislature to incentivize renewable energy projects.
The consensus and the challenge: There's a need. Is there the political will?
Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, who delivered the keynote address and participated in the day's panel discussions, declared, "The Legislature is open for business and new ideas."
"We need an aggressive energy policy -- an all-energy solution that works for Floridians first. We've relied too long on tourism, agriculture and growth," the Merritt Island Republican said.
Lawmakers failed during the past two sessions to enact renewable-energy legislation, partly due to infighting among small-scale producers and big investor-owned utilities, and partly due to fears of higher consumer costs in the short term.
Gov. Charlie Crist dampened the prospects at the 2010 session when he vowed not to sign any legislation that might boost prices. On Thursday, Haridopolos challenged Crist to support specific clean-energy legislation at a special session the governor called for July 20-23 to pass a constitutional ban on offshore oil drilling.
Haridopolos and others said the time may be ripe for action, and Thursday's forum suggested that critical mass was at hand.
"What's going on in the Gulf today is the oil industry's Three Mile Island," Rich Holland, president of Holland Advisors, said to a round of applause.
With fossil fuel prices continuing to rise and carbon taxes looming in Washington, renewable-energy advocates predicted that renewable power sources will reach "rate parity" within five years.
Florida, with abundant sunshine and biomass to burn, is well-positioned to grow its own power -- if there is the political will to incentivize the renewable-energy industry.
Eric Silagy, a vice president at Florida Power & Light, said, "2008 was roadmap for large-scale projects up to 110 megawatts. We need predictability for growth."
The 2008 bill permitted utilities to charge the costs for solar plant construction to ratepayers, and FPL moved quickly to set up arrays in DeSoto and elsewhere. Those projects, Silagy predicted, will help to make Florida the second biggest solar producer in the country by year's end.
But that 2008 legislation sunsetted, and FPL, Progress Energy and other big power providers want lawmakers to renew those incentives to spur further growth.
A study conducted by the Washington Economics Group earlier this year projected that the solar and photovoltaic industry in Florida has the potential to generate up to 40,000 jobs.
For their part, biomass advocates are pressing for more favorable "avoided-cost" rules that will bring a fair return on power they sell to the grid, thereby spurring energy diversity and competition.
"Florida is a growing machine," said Joe Collins of Lykes Bros. "From biodiesel to algae to cellulosic, there is extraordinatory potential."
Others called Florida "the Saudi Arabia of biomass."
While solar advocates tout their clean power output, biomass proponents see their ventures as a win-win proposition as well.
Sean Stafford, a consultant for Florida Crystals and other alternative-energy ventures, sees biomass technology as a "carbon neutral" way to dramatically reduce burgeoning landfills.
"There's a 13 million-ton reduction with biomass," he said.
Calling biomass power production Florida's "low-hanging fruit," Stafford said these operations can convert waste at an economical rate of 14-16 cents per kilowatt hour.
One company, Covanta Energy, currently produces 13 megawatts but only receives 6 cents per kilowatt from Progress. Biomass power providers say a market-based adjustment to the Public Service Commission's "avoided cost" formula is needed to push their ventures forward.
Susan Glickman, director of the Florida Business Network for Clean Energy Economy, said lawmakers must do more than simply pass "voluntary programs that help a couple of companies. We need a level playing field with Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) and carbon caps."
Holland sees no reason why Florida can't ramp up renewable power and cash-in on the declining costs of photovoltaic technology.
"Texas, which produces as much oil as it uses, exceeded its 2,000 megawatts RPS in 2009 and has set a new goal of 5,800 megawatts by 2015," he said.
Florida is one of 21 states with no Renewable Portfolio Standard.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.