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Fla. Senate passes bill to streamline transmission approval

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Republican Sen. Tom Lee speaks in support of House Bill 405 on Feb. 21.
Source: The Florida Channel

The Florida Senate on Feb. 21 passed a bill to streamline the transmission approval process, sending it to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott as the first energy-related measure of the 2018 legislative session.

House Bill 405 would establish a uniform standard to be used when evaluating proposed transmission infrastructure. It would also codify that the state Public Service Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over the question of whether utilities should bury their power lines. Advocates of H.B. 405 said it will help power companies connect customers to new generation capacity in remote parts of the Sunshine State. A number of entities registered their support during committee meetings, including Duke Energy Florida LLC, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power Co. and the Jacksonville and Orlando municipal utilities.

Critics argue the bill is imprudently premised on Florida Power & Light Co. completing the expansion of its Turkey Point nuclear plant and it will enable the company to once again pursue adding transmission lines to deliver power from the plant in Homestead, Fla., to Miami-area residents. FPL has not spoken at hearings on H.B. 405 or its identical Senate companion bill, and the NextEra Energy Inc. subsidiary did not respond to a request for comment regarding its position on the measures.

Senators voted 34-4 on the linear facilities legislation. The bill divided the delegation representing Miami-Dade County, through which the proposed Turkey Point transmission towers would run. The four "no" votes were cast by Democrats.

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Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez.
Source: The Florida Channel

Bill provisions

The new statewide standard set by the bill would replace local guidelines that might be more protective of the environment, and, in the words of Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who was the only lawmaker to voice opposition during committee and floor debates, permit utilities to "run roughshod" over those considerations.

The Siting Coordinating Office, or SCO — composed of Florida's governor and the Cabinet — reviews all transmission projects and uses local variances to make its decisions on whether to approve new infrastructure. Republican Sen. Tom Lee, the sponsor of H.B. 405's upper-chamber companion, promised his legislation would still allow the SCO to incorporate city and county criteria.

"The impractical part is if they end up being whipsawed or controlled by a myriad of local land use regulations, the ability to site transmission lines in Florida is going to get much, much more difficult," Lee said Feb. 8 on the Senate floor.

Although Turkey Point was never invoked by name, the nuclear plant still loomed large over debate between Lee and Rodriguez throughout the legislative process. FPL had hoped to connect Turkey Point, which the company intends to keep operating beyond 2050, to the Miami area with transmission lines, but a 2016 court decision finding that the SCO overlooked Miami-Dade ordinances when approving the utility's application put that effort on hold.

Since that ruling, FPL has put a self-described "pause" on building two new reactors at that nuclear plant, along with its associated transmission infrastructure.

"An entire region was going to have their energy needs met by this transmission facility," said Lee. "And to have one local government under the consolidated permitting process be able to stop a permit is something we have to be careful about."

Rodriguez said he believes that the court "sided against utilities on behalf of local communities."

If signed into law, H.B. 405 could allow the utility to resubmit its Turkey Point transmission application, sidestep Miami-Dade standards and receive approval to erect transmission towers on its previous route alongside Everglades National Park.

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