Democratic Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried faces criticism: “Why is she accepting money from fossil fuel companies?”

Fried
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services Nikki Fried. CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Last month, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s political committee got a $25,000 contribution from one of the state’s biggest utility companies – Florida Power & Light Company.

The August 30 contribution came as the company was waiting to hear from a state regulatory agency regarding energy efficiency goals.

Last week, attorneys for Fried’s office weighed in support of Florida Power & Light’s stance to eliminate five-year mandated energy conservation goals. The standards relate to the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act, (FEECA) and environmentalists have supported the goals.

Fried’s support of getting rid of energy efficiency standards is confusing for environmental activists because she has been a consistent voice for progressive policies. She’s been outspoken, for example, in criticizing Florida’s reluctance to adopt policies that address climate change.

Fried is the only Democrat on Florida’s elected Cabinet.

Franco Ripple, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services provided an explanation to the Florida Phoenix, saying:

“Commissioner Fried’s suggestion to eliminate FEECA is simply because it’s outdated and doesn’t work. After 40 years of goal-making, Florida still has the third-highest energy consumption in America, and the PSC (Public Service Commission) has allowed FEECA utilities to set energy efficiency goals at or near zero. Florida is one of just a handful of states still using this obsolete model, while nearly two dozen other states have moved to potentially better ways of delivering energy efficiency gains.”

“Commissioner Fried has suggested it’s time for a new conversation on how utilities can contribute to meaningful energy efficiency and conservation goals, a dialogue involving all stakeholders including utilities, conservation groups, consumer advocates, and others. She also believes we have to ensure Florida’s low-income residents benefit from energy efficiency improvements, and has proposed legislative budget items on that issue.”

Of concern to environmentalists is a statement that Fried’s office sent last week to the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates public utilities and is involved with setting the five-year efficiency goals.

In 2014, the last time regulators met to set the five-year goals, utility companies proposed reducing efficiency efforts by at least 80 percent. The PSC approved the proposal. Some of those companies also proposed energy-reduction goals of “zero” during hearings before the PSC in August.

The attorneys at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) provided a statement saying:

“It is FDACS’ position that the state should give serious consideration to eliminating the goal-setting and program implementation process requirements under FEECA,” the document notes.

“Rather than continuing with an outdated and ineffective process, the state should pursue other methods of reducing customer demand and increasing energy efficiency and conservation that have been proven to be effective, such as increased energy efficiency requirements in building codes and appliances and implementing a public benefits charge.”

The document echoes a statement given last month to the Florida Phoenix by Florida Power & Light, which gave the $25,000 donation to Fried’s PAC.

“We don’t think inefficient energy-efficiency mandates make sense,” said FP&L spokesman Bill Orlove. “We have long believed that empowering our customers to make energy-efficient choices that are right for them is a better approach than charging higher rates to pay for handouts that only some customers can use.”

When asked about the $25,000 contribution, Agriculture agency spokesman  Ripple said that the Phoenix should address the issue with Fried’s political committee.

“But Commissioner Fried makes decisions on their merits,” he said. Ripple also noted that Fried was the lone vote against a recent proposal by Tampa Electric Company for a natural gas plant, which environmentalists also opposed.

But environmental advocates remain concerned.

“Florida’s energy efficiency programs are dismal,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director with the Southern Alliance For Clean Energy.

“Hard-working families and businesses who can least afford it, suffer when they pay for power plants we could avoid building with efficiency. It’s also the most cost-effective way to tackle climate change. It is not utility efficiency programs that need to end, it’s the antiquated cost-benefit test used to justify the utilities zero or near-zero goals that should end.”

Fried’s PAC also took in $25,000 from Tampa Electric Company on January 14. Cherie Jacobs, a spokesperson for Tampa Electric, said this week that the company has no issues with the FEECA system.

Fried’s acceptance of campaign contributions from some of the state’s biggest public utilities prompted the environmental activist group Sunrise Movement Orlando, to ask in a tweet “why is she accepting money from fossil fuel companies?”

The statement from Fried’s attorneys also floored George Cavros with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who in a blog post called the statement “stunning” coming from an agency led by Fried which “claims that consumer protection and climate action are a priority for her.”

“We’re confused why the state Cabinet official who is supposed to have consumer’s backs is instead siding with big businesses that want to wriggle out of their obligation to help over six million Florida families cut their electricity bills,” added Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall in a statement issued after the Phoenix story was published. “Fried’s legal brief basically says – “Hey, the utilities promise they will keep offering energy efficiency programs to people, so we don’t need the state to require it.’ That’s bad public policy.”

While the Agriculture Department may be okay with dismantling the current standard to increase energy efficiency goals, mayors from several Florida cities disagree.

As the Phoenix reported last month, officials from Sarasota, Largo, Dunedin and St. Petersburg have all contacted the PSC this year, calling on the agency to increase energy efficiency goals.

The PSC is set to establish the goals in early November.

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