How the Sunshine State can live up to its name, while enabling all to prosper
A Vietnam veteran, William “Coty” Keller is an ecologist and Florida Master Naturalist, working to conserve and restore the natural relationships among living things and the environment. He lives and works in Port Charlotte, FL. Current projects include leading the local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, eradicating invasive species from the mangroves in the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve, and promoting action on Climate Change with Florida Veterans for Common Sense.
Florida is the state at the highest risk for the negative effects of climate change. Florida is therefore one of the ‘front lines’ for promoting awareness and a realistic understanding of the issue.
The past year has seen a lot of bantering about solar power in Florida. On one side are those who view smaller power generators like rooftop solar as the answer. They believe they can, under the right policies, provide a source of reliable and cheap power. On the other side are the utility companies who say large scale solar plants are more efficient than rooftop generators. They prefer to control inputs to the electric grid. Utilities have stockholder profit to consider. They don’t want to lose revenues to people generating their own power.
All the bickering has caused many citizens to lose sight of the real issues: a stable climate, jobs, the economy and household income. The real problem is that unless we reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we will face the catastrophic effects of climate change. This has been made clear by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the UN Panel on Climate, who advise that we must reduce GHG emissions by 50% right away (by 2025) with 80% reductions by mid-century.
Instead of “either or”, why not “both and”? We will need lots of both kinds of solar if we are to succeed.
So how can we achieve real reductions in emissions, while creating jobs, boosting the economy and having Florida become the real Sunshine State? Here is what I think we need to do:
- Congress should enact Carbon Fee and Dividend legislation. The fee is imposed at the mine, well or port of entry. It starts at $15 for every ton of CO2 the fuels will emit. Every year the fee is increased another $10. Money collected from the carbon fees are returned directly to households as a monthly dividend. About two-thirds of households will break even or receive more than they would pay in higher energy prices. This proposal is supported by energy companies such as Exxon-Mobil because they will be able to plan and reduce risk.
- Electric utilities should upgrade business models so they will be generating less power even with population growth. This can be achieved by expanding distributed power (rooftop solar in particular) and helping customers conserve power by making their homes and businesses more efficient. Utilities should also shift from using heat trapping gas-emitting sources of energy to non-emitters (solar, wind, hydro, nuclear); and can make money doing so because of the steadily increasing price of carbon (and steadily decreasing cost of zero emission sources of energy). Monthly statements to customers will make it clear how much (and what kind of) power everyone is using, and how much carbon each of us is responsible for emitting. These billing statements also will let everyone know what progress we are making toward our goals of 50 percent reductions by 2025, and 80 percent by mid-century.
- Builders and developers should market energy efficient homes. The Union of Concerned Scientists tells the “tale of two houses” built in Lakeland FL, side by side, by the same contractor, using the same floor plan and basic amenities. One was built with energy efficient materials and design, including more wall insulation, a white roof, high efficiency heating and cooling, and solar systems for water heating and electrical power. The initial investment for the efficient home was higher, but its consumption from the electrical grid is 92% lower than the conventional house next door. The savings on electric bills alone pays a healthy return on the extra investment. We need to alter our home development processes so people are able to realize these savings, and we can avoid the extra electricity needed to fuel old fashioned, inefficient buildings.
- Local governments should tighten up building codes so all new construction and renovated buildings conserve energy. The 90-plus percent savings that can be achieved (with LEED and Service Star standards) in energy bills will pay handsome economic returns to home/building owners. It will also make housing more affordable. Meanwhile, utilities won’t have to generate so much power. Building codes should also require native landscapes, which not only save water and power but also take more carbon out of the air and store it in the soil.
- State government must require electrical utilities to produce at least 50 percent of their output from non-emitting sources (solar, wind, hydro, nuclear) by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. Because of the steadily increasing price of carbon, this transition will happen more by choice than by mandate. Because the revenues will be returned to households in the form of monthly dividends, family budgets will be bolstered and the economy will be stimulated. Florida also must upgrade energy conservation programs (free energy audits, etc.) to help people use less energy. We also must make Virtual Net Metering into law. Also called Group or Neighborhood Metering, this allows utility customers to share the electricity output from a single solar power generator. Folks in condominiums or apartment buildings could share the benefits from a common, larger photo-voltaic system.
With these kinds of solutions, Florida will quickly begin to look like the Sunshine State, with solar panels on rooftops and in large power plants everywhere you look. Native trees and shrubs will also be acting as nature’s solar panels, taking carbon out of the air and storing it in the soil. The power of free enterprise will assure not only a stable climate, but a robust economy, more jobs, better health and more secure household income.