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Fla. transmission bill gains support before legislative session

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Fla. transmission bill gains support before legislative session

A bill in the Florida statehouse that would speed up the approval process for new transmission lines has gained more support, passing another committee a month before the 2018 legislative session starts.

The legislation excludes utility infrastructure work from a state law requiring a proposed transmission project be reviewed by the local siting board of the jurisdiction through which it would pass. Concerns have been raised that House Bill 405 would cut out community perspective on how towers and wires would affect business, environmental and aesthetic considerations of an area.

Rep. Jayer Williamson, H.B. 405's co-sponsor, told members of the Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee on Dec. 6 that local input would remain "an essential part of the certification process" under the state's Power Plant Siting Act. His fellow Republican, Rep. Ralph Massullo, invoked Hurricane Irma in advocating for the bill.

"Our state is getting close to 21 million people, and to serve those people, we need to have legislation like this that does have some sensitivity to environmental impact but yet provides a much-needed service," Massullo said. "We just experienced one of the worst hurricanes as far as damage that our state has ever had in recorded history. And I think it's important that the utilities do whatever they can ... Part of their responsibility [is] to make sure that we have service to as many individuals as we can, and that service to be as up to date as possible."

"Ideally, and maybe in 50 years, we'll have wireless electricity; who knows," he continued. "But right now we don't. And so we need to do what we can as the legislature to make sure that service is provided in the best possible way, and this bill helps facilitate that."

David Childs, a representative of the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group, said the state's Siting Coordinating Office hears public comment on any transmission project, and citizens can propose alternative corridors. Florida's governor and his cabinet are members of that office and issue siting certifications. The state's Public Service Commission also has a say.

But Sierra Club lobbyist Dave Cullen doesn't trust the utility regulator, telling lawmakers that "the PSC has not necessarily had the greatest record on considering environmental issues."

"Well, let's hope that they do," Massullo said in response.

According to Cullen, the previous session's version of the bill could have allowed proposed Florida Power & Light Co. transmission towers to run along the edge of Everglades National Park. While the infrastructure would be on an easement and not in the park itself, Cullen was still concerned about the environmental and visual impact.

"And while I understand that is not an issue as of now, should this bill pass, [Florida Power & Light, or FPL] could bring that proposal right back to the PSC, and we could be right back where that is," he said. "Fundamentally we think that localities have to have the ability to make the decisions that their constituents and their residents want."

A Florida court in April 2016 rejected the state Siting Coordinating Office's approval of transmission lines for FPL's expansion of the Turkey Point nuclear plant, finding that the board overlooked local ordinances when greenlighting the infrastructure. The utility has since put a self-described "pause" on Turkey Point work.

At a November hearing, Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, or SACE, argued that H.B. 405 is imprudently premised on the completion of the new units at Turkey Point.

Duke Energy Florida LLC, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power Co., the Jacksonville and Orlando municipal utilities, the Florida Municipal Electric Association, the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce all support the bill. FPL has not had a representative speak at several legislative hearings.

The Miami-Dade County government, where Turkey Point is located, opposes the measure. So do SACE and the Sierra Club.

H.B. 405 is now in the Commerce Committee. Its companion, Senate Bill 494, was on the Community Affairs Committee's Dec. 5 meeting agenda but was temporarily postponed by its sponsor, Republican Sen. Tom Lee, in part because "We want to have a thorough conversation about it." The Florida legislature convenes its session on Jan. 9, 2018.

FPL is a NextEra Energy Inc. subsidiary, Duke Energy Florida is a Duke Energy Corp. subsidiary, Tampa Electric is an Emera Inc. subsidiary and Gulf Power is a Southern Co. subsidiary.