Lyle Hopkins: Florida at an energy crossroads

Acres of photovoltaic panels at Florida Power & Light's DeSoto Next Generation Solar Plant send electricity to a FPL substation and into the power grid. The facility is the largest in North America and will generate enough electricity to power 3,000 homes.

File photo
Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 4:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 4:14 p.m.

The decisions we make in the coming months and years will determine if Florida becomes a failed state or an economic powerhouse. Right now it appears more likely that a failed state is in our future. Our unemployment rate is nearly 11 percent, we face a $2 billion budget shortfall, and both political parties are deeply corrupt. Everyone has friends or family members out of work and it's hard to imagine a future where our children believe their prospects are better than ours were.

It doesn't have to be this way. We have options. The problem is that our elected officials and their financial backers lack the courage and desire to change. And why should they change? Times are great for the 1 percent at the top of the food chain. In less than three years, financial bonuses on Wall Street are at the same or higher levels than before the crash. Their bonuses then go to elected officials via campaign contributions to maintain the status quo.

A recent example came when a prominent politician in our state said we should give up on competing with China and other nations on future technologies like renewable energy. He believes we should throw in the towel. This is amazing when you consider that a recent report by Synapse Energy Inc. calculated that transitioning to renewable technologies will create 42,700 construction jobs. The "Sunshine" state couldn't be better named to take advantage of the photovoltaic revolution, and just happens to have tens of thousands of unemployed construction workers who need jobs. As a bonus, our builders would learn non-housing construction skills. These are sorely needed with our housing market on life-support because of the glut of homes built during the bubble. The initial 42,700 jobs are just the tip of the iceberg, as construction efforts will stimulate building suppliers, manufacturers and related areas to create even more jobs. The report estimated that 352,000 jobs would be created in total. So there is potential for hundreds of thousands of jobs, and they're currently up for grabs. These jobs are the difference between keeping a middle-class in Florida or looking like Mexico City in twenty years.

This also means we need to dump the tired old objections to renewable energy and get serious about putting people to work. The recent bankruptcy of the Solyndra solar firm is a good example of the "excuse machine" in motion. As a quick primer, Solyndra received a sweetheart deal from the government and apparently collapsed because of its products and business model. So what? Individual companies go out of businesses in a free-market system. That doesn't mean you walk away from an entire industry and say, "We can't compete with China." In the last two years alone the solar industry has doubled its employment totals to 100,000 people. The question for Floridians is, "Why can't we have some of the hundreds of thousands of jobs this industry can create?"

So it's time for change, real change, not the slogan embraced by charismatic politicians. This is a change that requires what remains of our middle class to fight for our continued existence. This will require citizens of Florida to push back on elected officials from both parties.

Voting party line is not going to work anymore. If your local, state or national elected officials will not take action to find good-paying jobs, then they need to be out of a job. It means supporting candidates who don't fit the focus-grouped, polished, beltway mold. It means taking part in demonstrations, be they Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, to flex muscles the middle class has let atrophy during the past three decades.

We must vocally and forcefully show that we will not tolerate job creation going on the back burner. We will not cede an inch of our competitiveness to China, Germany or anywhere else. We must make the powerful know that we will not tolerate their games. We are the engine that drives this nation, and we will not be ignored.

Lyle Hopkins is an energy and security analyst at the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute.

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