Ahead of hearings that will set energy efficiency standards for Florida’s utilities over the next decade, environmentalists and consumer advocates are raising questions about utility companies’ proposed goals, which are considerably less ambitious than in years past.
Some, including Jacksonville’s city-owned utility JEA, are projecting no energy savings.
That’s as Florida already ranks lower than almost any other state in energy efficiency, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is challenging the utility companies’ goals before state regulators.
To calculate energy efficiency, a common metric considers the amount of energy use reduced through efficiency and conservation programs as a portion of utilities' annual kilowatt hour sales.
In 2017, the national average energy savings rate was 0.69%; the average in just the Southeast was 0.29%; and the Sunshine State’s as a whole was 0.13%. At that time, JEA was doing better than most Florida utilities at 0.25%. By comparison, the state of Massachusetts had an average energy savings rate of 2.61%.
“Our utilities are really, really far behind in a region that's already significantly below the national average,” said Jordan Luebkemann, an associate attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. Earthjustice is representing the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the League of United Latin American Citizens at the upcoming Florida Public Service Commission hearings. The commission regulates Florida’s privately operated utilities, and to a lesser extent, their municipal counterparts.
The PSC must update its energy efficiency goals for the state’s largest electric utilities every five years under Florida law. On Monday, August 12, commissioners will begin meeting to consider goals through 2029.
As part of that process the utilities were required to conduct market studies to determine how much electricity they can cost-effectively save over the 10-year planning period. The goals are threefold:
- Cumulative energy savings
- Reduction of summer peak demand
- Reduction of winter peak demand
The goals are designed to reduce the amount of electricity that needs to be generated, Luebkemann said. Any electricity generation, even via renewable technology like solar panels, is more expensive than not needing that electricity in the first place.
It’s worth noting, he said, that seasonal peak reductions don’t mean that energy is conserved, but rather the demand is shifted to off-peak hours. The electricity is still used, but it’s consumed at times when it’s cheaper for the utility to produce it.
The goals that the PSC approves this month will be in place for 10 years. They’re binding, they’re enforceable, and they will become the basis for all of the incentive programs that the utilities will offer over that period in order to meet the goals.
But leading up to the hearings, Florida’s major utilities are proposing much lower energy efficiency goals than they have in the past. Luebkemann said Earthjustice’s own expert takes issue with their calculations.
Looking at Jacksonville’s public utility, Luebkemann said, “Correcting for just a few of the errors that they made, we find that it is cost effective for JEA to set a goal of 842 GWh to be saved over the next 10 years. For comparison, JEA has set a goal of 0 GWh to be saved.”
Earthjustice filed a motion to allow public testimony at the hearings, but that request was denied.
“Upon review and consideration of the motion, I find that a public testimony portion is not necessary given the complex and technical nature of the goal-setting proceeding. Additionally, the Legislature found that the Commission is the appropriate agency to adopt goals and approve plans without express directive to take public testimony,” wrote Commissioner Donald J. Polmann.
Eliseo Santana Jr. called that decision “un-American.” He’s a military veteran who lives in Clearwater and used to work for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, and he’d hoped to speak at the proceedings.
“I’ve had to cut back on other things to pay for my high power bill. The last bill for my 1,100-square-foot home was over $300,” the retiree said. “I know someone who can’t even afford to use her air conditioning. The utilities should do more to help people save money on their bills by increasing their energy efficiency. A small investment in energy efficiency from utilities will have a huge impact on people’s bills. Saving energy also means the utilities don’t need to build more expensive power plants, which customers wind up paying for.”
Many residents turned to the written word to get their messages to the PSC.
“There SHOULD be solar panels on every roof in Florida!” Jacksonville resident Janis Barns wrote. “Robust efficiency programs play a critical role to so many hard-working families in Florida that may not have the resources to upgrade their homes without the assistance of a utility program.”
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On top of potential cost savings for utility customers like Santana and Barns, raising energy efficiency goals would have a significant environmental impact, reducing climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.
“The League of United Latin American Citizens in Florida is extremely concerned with the negative impacts of high energy burdens on Latinos, African Americans and other communities of color in the state. According to reports, many low-income families pay almost three times more on their energy bills than their higher-income counterparts, and the long-term impacts of higher energy burdens and this energy injustice translates into significant health and safety concerns,” said Mari Corugedo, state league director. “The Public Service Commission must listen to the voices of ratepayers across the state and enact meaningful and robust energy efficiency goals that help lower costs for families already dealing with the impacts of dirty energy production, heat stress, flooding, severe weather phenomena and other climate change related impacts.”
Several Florida cities and counties are also pushing for utilities to set stronger energy savings goals.
The city of Coral Gables passed a resolution urging the PSC to set “meaningful, impactful, cost-effective and conservation-conscious goals,” claiming utility-run efficiency programs were essential to meet the city’s 100% clean and renewable energy goals.
Miami-Dade County also tied utility energy savings goals to the county-wide emission reduction efforts. Miami Beach called on the PSC to set “meaningful energy efficiency goals,” specifically by throwing out one of its two cost effectiveness tests.
WJCT News reached out to the PSC for comment, but via email a spokesperson wrote, “By law, Public Service Commissioners are not allowed to comment on issues that are coming before them for decisions.”
A JEA spokesperson said the city-owned utility is also barred from commenting. Nikki Kimbleton, director of public affairs for Jacksonville, said the city is “not taking a position at this time.”
The PSC’s hearings are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 12, and will continue through Friday, Aug.16. The meetings will be live streamed here.