Sneak Attack Alert! Watch Out, Energy Bill!
Around the State
Watch your wallet Thursday when the Senate is due to take up SB 2094, Adam Putnam's hard-fought-for energy bill.
As good a bill as it is, Big Power and a developer with a bigger dream than he has bank account are out to hijack it.
I'm talking about Florida Power & Light Co., the state's largest utility, and developer Syd Kitson, who keeps promising to build the largest solar-powered city in the United States.
By all accounts, when the Senate version of the energy bill is taken up on the chamber floor, a brand-new amendment, an amendment not seen in any committee before, will be tacked onto it enabling Kitson to build Babcock Ranch -- the property he calls "the nation's smartest grid" -- "to commence development ... by July 1, 2013" and to "create a minimum of 500 jobs within 12 months of receiving approval for cost recovery ..."
That cost recovery the amendment is talking about will be borne on the backs of FPL ratepayers.
Customers of the utility up and down the Sunshine State will foot the $300 million to $500 million bill for what the amendment in part describes as --
"... the full range of community infrastructure, including renewable energy, smart grid infrastructure, data communications networks, alternative transportation systems, sources for powering electric vehicles, digital learning centers, health and wellness systems and storm safety ... an on-site renewable energy-generating facility of less than 75 megawatt gross capacity which generates renewable energy, is constructed and operated by a utility as part of the project and is part of the state electric utility grid. ..."
This sneak-attack amendment bills Babcock Ranch as a Smart Community Development Project. Doesn't matter how much it costs to build, it jumps over all hurdles the Public Service Commission might have thrown up, allowing reimbursement "through the environmental cost recovery clause all reasonable and prudent costs incurred by a utility for a renewable energy project that is part of a ... Smart Community Development Project."
Babcock Ranch's energy infrastructure will be a gift from the state. Thank you very much, FPL customers -- all 4.4 million of you, from Jacksonville to Miami.
In the midst of a hectic day Wednesday, Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, was unable to return my phone call to discuss who will introduce the amendment or how it might threaten passage of the energy bill this session.
The reality is, not everybody has faith in Babcock Ranch, pretty though its conceptual picture.
Despite a glitzy PR presentation with mesmerizing futuristic drawings, Babcock Ranch is all show and no go.
Kitson calls it "the world's smartest city." Perhaps. But right now it's the world's emptiest city -- population-wise anyway.
The big promise three years ago was that the city of Babcock Ranch -- population at buildout, 50,000 -- would generate 20,000 permanent jobs across a wide range of industries and income levels, including education, retail, service industries, high technology, administration and manufacturing. Thousands of additional temporary jobs would be created in construction and related fields.
Kitson, incidentally, announced plans for the future city of Babcock Ranch in 2005 as part of a complex real-estate transaction that turned into the largest conservation land acquisition in Florida history (90 percent of the city will not be developed and remain a wildlife preserve). Gov. Jeb Bush even threw $310 million in the pot in 2006.
Florida real estate history is littered with grand plans of shining cities that might have been. Remember Flamingo, that watery wisp of Everglades National Park that was going to be the next Chicago -- population zero? Some Southwest Florida locals remain skeptical that Kitson can turn his $2 billion green vision into a living, breathing thing.
Kitson struggled along with the rest of the world in this economy. The company he helped found, Kitson & Partners of Palm Beach Gardens, faced losing control of the property last August when $100 million in securitized debt came due. But rather than hand the property back to its lenders, Kitson came up with $48.2 million in fresh equity that was used to pay off the debt. Unfortunately, investors lost money.
How many senators are going to see Babcock Ranch as an investment in the future at the hands of their FPL-ratepaying constituents will have to be seen. How many are going to ask why biomass fuel isn't in FPL's mix? After all, if the project is going to buy alternative power at the best rate for a city, it has to give weight to biomass. Aren't FPL customers going to ask, isn't the cost of solar 30 cents per kilowatt, and the per-kw cost of biomass 7 cents?
It would be a great shame to see Florida's much-needed renewable energy bill -- after such a long journey -- come a cropper because of a camouflaged amendment that magically appears on the day before sine die.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.