An interview with the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
by Amy Keller
Florida Trend: What are the top energy issues you’d like to see addressed?
Adam Putnam: I’d like to see the state increase its fuel diversity. I’d like to see us expand our fleet of natural gas-powered vehicles. I’d like to see us finish out some of the private-sector ethanol projects that are under way, and I’d like to see us develop a long-term blueprint for Florida’s energy needs that has buy-in from the business sector, political sector and the utilities.
FT: Under your direction, an audit was initiated to review $176 million worth of grants for renewable energy and efficiency projects. What did that review find?
AP: It is not complete yet. It will be very soon. Early indications are that we have seen some very successful projects come to fruition. There are the bulk of the projects, which are still under way and too early to tell whether they will meet the promise that they had early on. There will be some instances where we will be initiating action to recoup money or even pursue charges against a very limited number of grantees who abused the public funds.
FT: You’ve talked before about the need for conservation efforts. In your travels around the state, have you come across any businesses with notable conservation efforts?
AP: Mosaic’s new headquarters, Darden’s new headquarters, Publix’s new headquarters, the Orlando utilities building. We see JM Family Enterprises installing solar panels on rooftops of dealerships. So there are a number of businesses making a business decision to incorporate smart conservation techniques into their daily operations. With Darden, it isn’t just their headquarters. They’re incorporating some of these design elements into each of their restaurants as well.
FT: What do you see as the logical progression of alternative/renewable energy here in Florida? Where do you see the state in five or 10 years down the road?
AP: I view energy policy as an all-of-the-above approach. I am not singularly focused on renewable. I believe we need an array of options for energy production for electricity and for mobile fuels in a peninsular state — and that means that diversity is important in a state that needs multiple options for its growing energy needs. Reliability is critical in a state that has record amounts of lightning strikes, is susceptible to hurricanes, tornados and other things that jeopardize reliability. And, of course, to be competitive, affordability is important, and so a logical progression would be that the state’s current reliance on natural gas will continue because of the affordability of that fuel. It is my hope that our nuclear projects will get back on track because they are long-term, zero-fuel cost technologies that also have zero emissions. From a national perspective that affects Florida, it would be nice to get clean coal back on track and that as we continue to see prices fall on renewables like solar, that we will see greater market demand for those.
The enormous game change for energy policy has been the discovery of new technologies that unlocked anywhere from 100 to 150 years of natural gas production for North America. And while that is attractive in the sense that it is domestic and now affordable, it still is only arriving in our state via two pipelines, so as we increase our reliance on natural gas, it’s important for us to diversify how we get natural gas here.
FT: There’s been growing opposition to advanced financing of nuclear power projects across the state after delays in the proposed Levy County nuclear project have added billions to the price tag. At the same time, structural damage to the Crystal River nuclear plant and fumbled repairs have cost millions, and it’s unclear if that plant will ever reopen. Do these problems cast doubt on the future of nuclear energy in Florida?
AP: Taxpayers are angry at paying for something that may never come to fruition. In getting nuclear back on track, the goal is ratepayers would be paying for something that would come to fruition and that will over the long term provide low-cost electricity in addition to natural gas-fired plants. Nuclear in the long haul is the cheapest, but clearly it’s very expensive on the front end.
FT: What’s your position on drilling off Florida’s coast?
AP: I’m not hearing a push to reopen that debate. There continues to be concern about the Chinese and the Cubans drilling not too far off of the Florida Keys. When I was in Congress, I worked on an effort to open up 8.5 million acres in the eastern Gulf that also created a zone around the state that Florida would retain control over. I think that it appears that given the vast new discoveries of natural gas on land that the rational economic decision is to maximize those finds rather than looking offshore. From a near-shore perspective, I just don’t think it makes sense for Florida to have near-shore drilling especially given that we’ve discovered a century and a half’s new supply of natural gas.