Solar panel installation (Pic by Wayne National Forest)

Last week, the Florida legislature approved the use of $31 million in federal stimulus funds to pay for a portion of two energy rebate programs begun under Gov. Charlie Crist: one for rooftop solar panels and the other for energy-efficient air conditioners.

The solar rebate program had a backlog of $52 million. The legislature’s action provided slightly less than $29 million to cover the solar program. That money will be spread out evenly among customers, so rebate applicants could get slightly more than half of what they expected.

So how, in this time of budget shortfalls, can the legislature fund the rest of the backlog, much less be able to offer rebates in the future?

State Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, offered a potential solution: the creation of a “public benefits fund,” which would place a 25-cent surcharge on customers’ utility bills. Under her proposal, the money would be used to fund solar rebates as well as energy-efficiency upgrades for low-income residents.

She proposed a similar measure during last year’s legislative session, which died in committee. But the terms of the discussion are changing, she says, and there may be cause for hope this year.

A recent study by Florida Tax Watch, which found that 70 percent of Floridians would accept a monthly surcharge as high as $1 per month, lends further support to the idea of charging power customers to pay for renewable energy investments.

“It shows that Floridians are willing to take this on themselves,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda says. “They’re willing to do something extra, something reasonable.”

Barry Moline of the Florida Municipal Electric Association points out that the Tax Watch study does not differentiate between voters’ views of a public benefits fund and another idea that foundered during last year’s legislative session, which would have allowed the state’s private utilities to add surcharges to their bills to pay for the higher costs of large-scale solar installations. If people are only willing to accept a limited monthly charge to fund alternative energy, the two proposals could wind up competing with each other.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda says that the Tax Watch survey underscores a change in an alternative energy discussion once focused on environmental concerns, like reducing carbon emissions. In recent years, the conversation has broadened, as the focus has shifted to economic development, and the base of supporters has expanded with it.

The survey found that “Floridians cite job creation and attracting high-tech industry as the two most important reasons for investing in renewable energy.”

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, hosted a renewable energy conference over the summer and talked about the ways alternative energy could help bring research jobs to the Space Coast he represents. In a statement, a spokesman for Rick Scott said the governor-elect believes in supporting private alternative energy development, and in investing state resources when it can net a return for taxpayers.

The key, Rehwinkel Vasilinda says, is finding the sweet spot, where environmentalists and entrepreneurs meet.

As David Roberts has argued, “What we face is not a singular problem waiting on the One True Policy.” Policies that promote investment in renewable energy should not be seen as a replacement for emissions targets (like those that recently survived a California referendum), he writes, but they can make those targets easier to achieve.

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