Bill could boost Florida’s ‘renewable’ fuel industry. Critics say it will cost consumers

There is booming interest across Florida in turning cow manure, urban sewage and other nasty stuff once considered waste into “renewable” gas.

If used instead of oil and other fossil fuels, such alternative sources of energy could, at least potentially, help slow emissions driving climate change and the rising seas that threaten communities up and down the cost.

But such experimental projects come at considerable costs — costs that under a bill being considered by Florida lawmakers would be passed on to consumers, not the companies that stand to profit from the operations.

“We want to be energy diverse in this state and this bill very simply wants to promote that type of investment,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-St. Petersburg, said during a senate committee meeting last month.

Energy policy watchdog organizations, however, are concerned that the bill amounts to a sweetheart deal for utility and gas companies that will keep the state tethered to gas combustion. They argue that “renewable gas” infrastructure also could be used to pipe and pump fossil fuels and the costs of its construction could be funded by Florida residents through likely hikes in power bills.

“We all know the economy has been tough and people are struggling to make ends meet,” said Zayne Smith, the director of advocacy at AARP Florida. “Any increase in a power bill is a significant blow financially.”

DiCeglie said his bill doesn’t specifically address potential rate increases or decreases. But “you could make the argument that it could lower bills in the long run — there’s a big question mark there,” during the regulated industries senate committee meeting.

If the bill passes, it would be left up to the Public Service Commission to approve what’s known as “cost recovery” — an option for utilities to pass on the costs to customers for a major project such as damage recovery after a storm.

Critics say they don’t see a reality where millions or even billions of dollars in alternative energy projects wouldn’t hit the pocketbooks of Floridians. Standing law says utilities shouldn’t make a profit off the purchase of fuel to supply power in Florida. But the proposal would allow utilities to earn a profit by charging more for more expensive fuels like renewable gas.

“That’s a recipe to make Florida the most expensive state in the nation,” Bradley Marshall, a senior attorney with Earthjustice said. “Power plants can get gas from anywhere, they shouldn’t make profit off of it, and so they should pay the market rate for gas. And if RNG (renewable natural gas) is cheaper, then they should be buying that to use in their power plants. But they’re not.”

The groundbreaking of Chesapeake Utilities first renewable natural gas facility in Florida in partnership with Full Circle Dairy. Full Circle Dairy press release

The groundbreaking of Chesapeake Utilities first renewable natural gas facility in Florida in partnership with Full Circle Dairy. Full Circle Dairy press release

Documents provided to the Miami Herald from the Energy and Policy Institute show that one gas supplier, Chesapeake Utilities, drafted the legislation. They also drafted two renewable gas bills last session. One bill Chesapeake was involved with — handing out millions for tax breaks for gas equipment, fuel and renewable natural gas infrastructures — passed last year.

“We’re seeing these bills pushed by investor-owned utilities and corporations that are making a lot of money off of the further build-out of things like natural gas pipelines,” Alissa Jean Schafer, with the Energy and Policy Institute, said. “Bills that incentive renewable natural gas are a part of that.”

Chesapeake is a Maryland-based company that paid $923 million in 2023 to acquire Florida City Gas from its previous owner, Florida Power & Light. The 120,000 customers across eight South Florida counties more than doubled Chesapeake’s natural gas footprint in the state. Just days before the Florida Legislature convened last year, Chesapeake announced its first RNG project.

During a senate committee meeting, Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Broward, asked why this year’s bill excluded a line about “undue hardship” for customers that was in the a previous version of the RNG bill that failed to pass last year. DiCeglie said he was unsure and he’d look into it.

But one email provided to the Miami Herald shows that months prior Chesapeake was requesting drafting changes to the legislation down to line edits:

“Line 59-60 remove ‘that the incremental bill impact will not result in an undue hardship to customers,” the government relations manager for Chesapeake wrote in an email to DiCeglie’s legislative aid.

A Chesapeake lobbyist, Ron Brisé, did not answer specific questions the Herald asked but shared a statement that said Florida relies on other states for energy and this bill would help the state create its own reliable energy source. He also said the projects would create more jobs and economic growth in Florida. DiCeglie did not respond for comment.

After speaking with Earthjustice, Senator Shevrin D. “Shev” Jones, a Democrat from Miami Gardens, said he tried amending the bill to protect customers from rate increases. Jones ended up withdrawing the amendment because he was informed by DiCeglie that there wasn’t a guarantee customers would always see lower bills. Jones said he’d likely vote to oppose the bill moving forward.

“I probably won’t be supporting it in that form,” Jones told the Herald. “I am not and will never be a fan of shifting costs over to consumers especially when in past dealings many of these companies have not operated in good faith but on the backs of consumers.”

The proposal, now part of a broader energy bill (SB 1624) also would widen areas where renewable gas operations could be constructed — including near schools and parks — and bar local governments from blocking where they are built.

Cow poop at an Okeechobee farm supply the technology that makes renewable natural gas. Some environmentalists worry that renewable fuel might become so lucrative that dairy farms could scale up, which would increase the amount of methane emitted into the atmosphere. Ashley Miznazi/amiznazi@miamiherald.com

Cow poop at an Okeechobee farm supply the technology that makes renewable natural gas. Some environmentalists worry that renewable fuel might become so lucrative that dairy farms could scale up, which would increase the amount of methane emitted into the atmosphere. Ashley Miznazi/[email protected]

Climate benefits fall short of industry claims

If organic material like cow manure is not recycled in a renewable gas or compost system, it emits methane, the most potent of the greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere. So reusing waste generated by operating dairy farms can reduce those emissions.

READ MORE: Producing power from cow poop: A Florida dairy aims to reduce climate impact of cattle

But environmentalists are concerned that renewable fuel might become so lucrative that dairy farms could scale up, which would increase the amount of methane emitted into the atmosphere. The bill also would allow natural gas — a fossil fuel — to be mixed in with renewable gas.

“Putting renewable in front of natural gas does not make it a clean energy source,” David Cullen, a lobbyist supporting the Sierra Club said. “This bill will encourage the generation of more methane.”

USDA researchers wrote in a 2023 study that many farms could benefit from renewable natural gas technology but it’s too expensive for most operations. Renewable natural gas is four to 17 more expensive than fossil gas a report by Sierra Club and Earthjustice found, which explains why companies are on the lookout for state funding to cover these costs.

There are also questions about adverse climate effects with peer-reviewed studies revealing methane leakage up to 15% from the renewable natural gas technology.

“RNG is not the path towards an affordable clean energy future,” Marshall said. “We know how to generate clean energy, and we are the sunshine state so there is a lot of room for solar expansion in the state.”

In the Midwest, they’re already experiencing some of the fallout from investment in renewable natural gas technology. Analysis by Investigate Midwest reveals that in Wisconsin, the USDA has provided grants and loan guarantees to renewable natural gas operations to receive 50 times the average funding compared to their solar counterparts.

Michigan funded a study into the feasibility of renewable natural gas. The study showed that in the best-case scenario, renewable natural gas would reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in Michigan only by up to 5 percent — and said it’d take significant investments from taxpayers and ratepayers to pull that 5 percent off, Planet Detroit reported.

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.

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