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Florida to set goals for 100% renewable energy by 2050. But will it actually happen?

Solar array floats out as FPL and Miami-Dade County launched a half-acre 402-panel floating solar array generating 160 kilowatts of power into the Blue Lagoon adjacent to Miami International Airport on Tuesday, January 28, 2020.
Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Solar array floats out as FPL and Miami-Dade County launched a half-acre 402-panel floating solar array generating 160 kilowatts of power into the Blue Lagoon adjacent to Miami International Airport on Tuesday, January 28, 2020.

Florida is taking the first step toward requiring more renewable energy statewide after Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced her office planned to start the process of setting goals for the state to get 100% of its power from renewable energy by 2050.

But goals are likely all they’ll remain, at least for the foreseeable future.

Under state law, the power to actually force utilities to meet them falls to the Public Service Commission, an appointed statewide board in charge of regulating Florida’s utilities that has historically been less than aggressive about upping standards for renewable energy or energy efficiency.

Despite that, young climate advocates, like 22-year-old Delaney Reynolds, cheered what is largely a symbolic victory in a state where political leaders have so far only addressed the symptoms of climate change, like sea rise-driven flooding, and not the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels that cause it.

“It holds the promise to be potentially the most significant step our state has taken on solving the climate crisis,” she said. “There are a lot of adaptation measures but nothing has been done at the state level to address the core cause of climate change.”

Reynolds was part of a group of Florida youths that sued the state in 2018 to force it to commit to a plan to address climate change. The case was dismissed, but in January the youths and the nonprofit law firm representing them, Our Children’s Trust, came back with another tactic.

Eight young Floridians gathered at the steps of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse to discuss a complaint filed the previous day against the State of Florida for actively promoting, permitting and licensing activities that cause climate change. BY JOSÉ A. IGLESIAS

They found a 2011 Florida law that required the Department of Agriculture to set goals for committing to renewable energy, something it’s never done. They petitioned Fried to start that process, and after taking the full 30 days to respond, Fried’s office agreed.

“It’s our position that the agencies are out of compliance with what the Legislature commanded,” said Andrea Rodgers, senior litigation attorney for Our Children’s Trust. “The facts are very clear that renewable energy is not growing in Florida as it should. Natural gas is skyrocketing and renewables are on this slow trajectory.”

Fried is running as a Democratic candidate for Florida governor and is in the final year of her tenure as agriculture commissioner.

In a statement, Agriculture Department Spokeswoman Caroline Stonecipher did not address why the department didn’t set goals earlier but pointed to the multiple bills requiring renewable energy standards it proposed to the Legislature. None of them went anywhere.

“Since the legislature has failed to act on these policy bills, the Department is using existing statutory authority to set similar goals for the state,” she wrote.

Cities (and school districts) across Florida have committed to getting 100% of their power from renewable energy sources in recent years but found themselves stymied by the monopoly utilities that provide all of their energy.

Florida’s power companies produce less than 5% of their energy from renewable sources like solar or nuclear, and the largest utility — Florida Power & Light — doesn’t have a plan to ever get to 100% renewables. Duke Energy, which powers a northern section of the state, has a goal to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

Florida does not require its utilities to generate any electricity with renewable energy, like 38 other states do.

And after Fried’s office finishes setting renewable energy goals, it still won’t. That’s because the Legislature split up the tasks of setting goals and actually enforcing them. The enforcement role still belongs to the Public Service Commission, a consumer energy watchdog board that rarely rules against the interests of utilities.

Reynolds said she and other advocates hope to work with the PSC and utilities to achieve the 100% renewable energy goals, but based on the track record of Florida utilities when it comes to enforcing more renewable energy, she believes it will be an uphill battle.

“They’re gonna hate this. I know this,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s gonna be a fight every step of the way.”

Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of climate action advocacy group CLEO, called Fried’s decision a win for youth activists and for Florida, which is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S.

“I see this as another piece to the puzzle that continues to validate that a transition to clean, renewable energy is possible,” she said. “We can choose to do it now or do it much, much later and be behind the curve.”

The petition also included a 2019 report from Evolved Energy Research, a consulting firm that has helped states like New Jersey and Massachusetts plan their transition to renewable energy. The report found that a transition to 100% renewable energy is possible and would cost about $12.5 billion.

To make that happen, Florida would have to act immediately and aggressively to convert its fossil fuel plants to renewable power sources, slash the amount of energy used statewide with energy efficiency measures and get almost everybody on the road to trade out their gas-powered bus or car for an electric vehicle. It would also require that Florida rely on so far untested and wildly expensive technology like carbon capture, biofuels and hydrogen.

Ben Haley, one of the authors of the report, downplayed the role those technologies would have to play in Florida’s strategy and pointed out how the cost of more popular solutions like solar panels and electric cars have plummeted in recent years.

“Florida has a simpler challenge than a lot of places in the next 15 years because the strategies are relatively clear. Get as many renewables on the grid as you can in the next 15 years and electrify transportation,” he said. “That’s the challenge but it’s also the opportunity because those become pretty economical.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.

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Alex Harris - Miami Herald