Southern states pick up pace on renewable power

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Southern U.S. states are picking up the pace to force electric utilities to diversify fuel resources to include wind, solar, biomass and other renewable power resources, according to regulators.

FPL's Hybrid bucket truck and electric plug-in car are shown at the ground breaking ceremony for FPL's Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Indiantown, Florida December 2, 2008. The facility, which is expected to enter service in 2010, will combine solar-thermal with a combined-cycle natural gas-fired power plant to use less fossil fuel when heat from the sun is available to produce steam needed to generate electricity. REUTERS/Florida Power and Light Company/Doug Murray/Handout

Over the past week, regulators in Florida and Louisiana took action that may set utilities on a course to use cleaner energy sources that generate fewer heat-trapping greenhouse gases -- a so-called renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

In Texas -- already the nation’s leading wind-production state -- legislators this year may consider increasing the state’s renewable mandate or requiring more solar power and non-wind alternatives. The state surpassed its current renewable target of 5,000 MW last year.

So far, efforts by U.S. lawmakers to create a nationwide renewable portfolio standard have been rebuffed by lawmakers in southern states like Georgia, which lacks wind and solar opportunities seen in other states.

A national renewable target could get a boost in coming months. President-elect Barack Obama wants to require utilities to get 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

If Florida lawmakers ratify recommendations from the Florida Public Service Commission, investor-owned utilities FPL Group, Progress Energy Florida and Tampa Electric would be required to meet 20 percent of their energy needs through renewable resources by 2020.

In 2007, Florida got just 3.6 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

“Florida’s continued commitment to new renewable energy projects is strengthened through the draft rule, which further diversifies our energy mix and increases our energy security and stability,” said Matthew M. Carter II, PSC chairman.

In Louisiana, state regulators moved to revisit a renewable energy pilot program launched several years ago, said PSC member Lambert Boissiere. Any renewable measure could have an impact on Entergy Corp, the state’s biggest utility, and Cleco Corp.

“It is time because the technology is growing by leaps and bounds in this area and it is becoming more imperative that we make decisions to lead the industry,” said Boissiere.

Florida’s 20 percent by 2020 draft rule was more ambitious than a slower timeline suggested by the agency staff. That proposal called for a renewable mandate of 5 percent by 2017, rising gradually to 20 percent by 2041.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is leading a broad effort in the state to address climate change issues.

Florida’s proposal is heavily weighted toward solar and wind power, requiring that one-quarter of the renewable supply come from solar and wind. While utility spending was capped at 2 percent of retail revenue, three-fourths of that budget will go toward solar and wind rather than biomass or other forms of renewable energy.

Utility performance under the RPS standard will be reviewed every three years and companies will be penalized for noncompliance, a PSC spokeswoman said.

Editing by Jim Marshall