Renewable Energy Could Mean Home-Grown Florida Jobs
Around the State
With Florida fighting to kick-start its sluggish economy, the economic development and job creation of a clean-energy industry are being touted in the push for meaningful, renewable energy legislation.
Past efforts to expand the sector hit roadblocks in Tallahassee as lawmakers and consumer advocates struggled to support initiatives that might carry a higher price tag for ratepayers. Opponents pointed to the elevated cost of producing solar energy and the associated mechanism by which large investor-owned utilities (IOUs) recoup infrastructure investments as obstacles that could not be overcome.
While those issues continue to be a part of the conversation, this year a new storyline is moving to the forefront: green-collar jobs and local investment.
“There is no question in my mind that if done right, Florida could have a comprehensive energy policy that leads to economic-development opportunities and new jobs here in Florida,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, chairwoman of the Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee.
“My goal is to help chart a path toward diverse, clean-energy development that, at the same time, does not unduly burden ratepayers who are already struggling in this economy,” the Fort Myers Republican told Sunshine State News.
Florida is currently handicapped when it comes to keeping dollars in-state while procuring fuel for electricity production.
Florida Power & Light Co., for example, currently produces 60 percent of its electricity in Florida from natural gas, a number that will soon grow to 76 percent. But, the Sunshine State is one of the lowest producers of natural gas in the country. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows Florida accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s natural gas production.
Florida also has no coal mines or petroleum facilities. That equates to roughly $30 billion being exported to other states or foreign countries, says the Florida Solar Energy Center, because nearly 75 percent of the state's electricity is produced from fossil fuels.
Renewable energy supporters contend one of the state's great weaknesses -- its dependency on imported fuel -- could provide conditions for significant job growth and local economic investment in the future, since resources like solar and biomass are inherently connected to Florida.
"With renewable energy, you're growing or capturing your own fuel, so you create jobs by not shipping all this money out of state for fuel costs," said Sean Stafford, a leading energy consultant and lobbyist who represents biomass energy producers. "It will create a large number of net new jobs in the state. There's no doubt about that."
Stafford says the benefit of keeping that money in Florida far outweighs the initial extra cost to establish the infrastructure required.
Florida's Energy Potential
Gov. Rick Scott’s economic development transition team also seized on the industry as an untapped resource for jobs in Florida, titling their report, “Unleashing Florida’s Energy Potential: Creating Jobs Quickly and Building a Foundation for Florida’s Future.” Florida leads the nation in production of dry tons of biomass, including wood waste and crop and forest residues, which could be used to generate electricity, they found.
Some companies, like Covanta Energy, which operates five biomass facilities in Florida, use a waste-to-energy technique. A study by New York University, commissioned by Covanta, shows energy from household waste alone could have a huge impact:
"Florida could produce an additional 500 megawatts of new, renewable electricity, contribute over $7 billion in total construction economic impact, create over 1,200 new, nonexportable and long-term good-paying jobs, and add over $240 million in local annual economic impact by 2020.”
Another study, by the Washington Economics Group, shows economic activity from biomass is dramatically higher than from fossil fuels, finding that biomass-generated electricity creates hundreds more jobs, higher wages and nearly 14 times more state and local tax revenue per million megawatt hours than electricity produced from fossil fuels.
Rep. Clay Ford, chairman of the House Energy and Utilities subcommittee, says technology for solar and biomass is getting to the point where it makes economic sense to pursue it.
"I think tech has come along far enough now that we can get a good mix [of renewable energy]," said the Pensacola Republican. "For example, biomass has just now come into the forefront. We look at other sources of fuel, switch grass, waste from sugar cane, wood waste. It doesn't make any sense to use corn that competes with foodstuffs, when you can use sugar cane waste."
The solar industry is also poised to help with substantial growth in the state. Scott's transition team found Florida's universities to be national leaders in next-generation solar technology. They reported seven businesses launched in the state last year and 16 new technologies were licensed, testifying to the notion that university technologies result in spin-off companies.
Existing utilities, like FPL, have already taken steps in the development of solar and created jobs from it. Mark Bubriski, a spokesman for the company, says renewable energy facilities can create jobs quickly in terms of construction, but there's also a long-term benefit.
"The expansion of renewable energy can truly diversify Florida's energy sources and economy: research and development, applied learning centers, manufacturing and assembly and semi-conducting, to name a few," he said.
Every 1,500 megawatts of solar-generating capacity in Florida could mean up to 45,000 direct jobs and 50,000 indirect jobs (associated with construction and installation), says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
“If there is a market in Florida, then manufacturing companies have an incentive to locate here,” added Bubriski. “If they’re building panels here, it's cheaper to ship them within the state than from out of state."
Sean Miles, the executive director of Scott’s energy office, told Benacquisto’s committee Monday that Scott has not adopted a specific energy policy, but is committed to spending $176 million on energy programs and initiatives that create jobs.
“The main focus of the administration is getting jobs for Floridians and that’s going to be a goal of his energy policy,” Miles said.
But, a challenge lawmakers say they will still face is figuring out the balance between the need for renewable energy and jobs against the public cost of the infrastructure for it.
“The economy is an important factor, but we must be extremely sensitive to families and businesses that are already stretched to the limit,” said Benacquisto. “If we focus on the long-term and what is good for the ratepayer, the environment and the reliability of our electrical-energy supply, we will create a policy that encourages investment and job creation.”
The political will to develop smart renewable energy policy is mounting. From the governor's advisers to leaders of both chambers, alternative energy and the potential for economic development in Florida is generating sparks from all the players who could make it happen in 2011.