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How energy-efficient rebates to help households became a political fight between DeSantis and feds

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How energy-efficient rebates to help households became a political fight between DeSantis and feds

Sep 12, 2023 | 3:24 pm ET
By Mitch Perry
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How energy-efficient rebates to help households became a political fight between DeSantis and feds
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The FL Public Service Commission's draft rule is under fire from groups who want power companies to set higher goals for energy efficiency . Credit: FL PSC

What started out with an $8.8-billion federal program to help low-income households nationwide save on electricity bills and upgrade homes with clean energy equipment has become a political fight, with Gov. Ron DeSantis ignoring the massive, federally funded rebate programs for Floridians.

In August 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy allocated $346.3 million for the consumer home energy rebate programs for Florida, but that pot of money is still sitting there.

However, a spokesperson for the federal energy department says that the state can still access the two rebate programs: One is the Home Efficiency Rebates program and the other is the Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates program.

“Florida is still an eligible participant in the Home Energy Rebate Programs,” Amanda Finney, deputy director of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy, told the Phoenix in an email.

That said, Florida has until Aug. 16, 2024 to apply for or reject the funding. And if the state declines, millions will go to other states, according to the U.S. energy office documents.

DeSantis has not commented directly about the federal rebate funds. But Democratic members in Congress have been livid about the rebate situation for Floridians.

A veto

That’s because the governor vetoed a $5 million federal grant for energy programs on June 15 — part of the 2023-24 state budget of Florida. That money could have been used to set up a program to distribute the overall $346.3 million in rebate programs. The governor’s office did not release a statement when he vetoed that $5 million.

The veto has been denounced by Hillsborough County Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Democrat, who said in a letter in July to DeSantis that “Floridians already are reeling from exorbitant electric bills and the most expensive property insurance rates in the country. Now Florida families are being pickpocketed because you’ve elevated your political interests over the people’s interests. It’s wrong, and I urge you to reverse course now so that Floridians can put money back into their pockets at a time they need it.”

In addition, all eight Florida Democrats who serve in Congress sent a letter to U.S. Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week, calling on her department to consider administering those rebates “either through a direct federally managed program or through locally managed programs.”

“The Department has communicated that only state and territory energy offices are presently eligible to apply for much of these program funds,” reads the letter. “The State of Florida failed to fund energy programs that would have overseen federal rebates made available through the IRA [Investment Reduction Act] and IIJA [Infrastructure Investment and Job Act].

The letter was signed by Darren Soto, Kathy Castor, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Lois Frankel, Maxwell Frost, Jared Moskowitz, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.

The $5 million federal grant that DeSantis vetoed consisted of $2.5 million for the administration of the Home Efficiency Rebate Program and $2.5 million for the administration for the Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates program.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, those totals were the maximum that a state could request to help prepare the state for future funding.

DeSantis’ veto means that at least currently, there is no mechanism to plan or apply for the two larger block grants- one for $173.6 million for states to provide home retrofits that reduce the overall energy consumption of individual households and multifamily buildings, and one for nearly $172.6 million for rebates for homeowners who purchase qualified electric appliances and energy-efficiency improvement measures, according to the U.S. Department of Energy press release issued last November.

At a legislative delegation held in Hillsborough County on Tuesday, climate activists asked state lawmakers to find a way to convince the administration to access those funds.

“Floridians have watched their rates skyrocket over the past couple years from volatile fossil fuel costs,” said Brooke Ward, the senior Florida organizer for Food and Water Watch. “Until we end our unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels, our rates will continue to be unpredictable. Energy efficiency can help to immediately reduce our energy use and bills while we make the transition to clean, renewable energy.”

That program guidance on the rebates was sent out to the states at the end of July. It provided information on how states, territories and tribal governments can access the home energy rebate program. If those rebates are ever made available to Florida households, consumers could access energy savings via the two programs.

The Home Efficiency Rebates program would provide grants to the states to provide rebates for home retrofits to reduce overall energy consumption by adding items like efficient air conditioners and smart thermostats.

The Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates program provides specific rebates on a number of Energy Star appliances. That includes up to $1,750 for an electric heat pump water heater, up to $840 for an electric heat pump clothes dryer, and up to $840 for an electric stove, cooktop, range or oven, according to the Department of Energy’s IRA Home Energy Rebates program requirements & application instructions.

Other states

Elsewhere across the nation, California has been allocated about $582 million for the rebate programs; Texas was awarded $690 million and New York $318 million.

Other lawmakers around the country have noted the rejection of federal funds, and said they’d gladly take Florida’s share.

“If Florida, or any other state, does not plan to accept these rebate funds, I urge you to do everything you can to make these funds available to other states, including the state of Rhode Island, that can put them to good use,” Rhode Island Democratic U.S. Sen. Jack Reed wrote to Energy Secretary Granholm last month.

This isn’t the first time that lawmakers outside of Florida have attempted to exploit the rejection of federal funds by a GOP governor. More than a decade ago, Democrats in places like California and New York reached out to the Barack Obama administration for a share of federal high-speed rail funding that then-Gov. Rick Scott rejected.

Meanwhile, Helen Aguirre Ferré, the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, recently retweeted an opinion piece that praised DeSantis for being the only governor in the country who has rejected “major Green New Deal subsidies.”

“Red state leaders have great power over our nation’s economy, prosperity and American way of life if only more would boldly fight back like we do in Florida,” she wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Broward County Democratic state Sen. Lori Berman who was on a Senate appropriations committee this session related to energy programs says she’s perplexed by DeSantis’ $5 million veto, saying it’s “absurd.”

“Don’t we want people to be more energy efficient? I don’t understand why he vetoed it. I think it’s crazy to veto something that encourages people doing more energy efficiency measures,” she said. However, she adds that there have been other instances this year where the state hasn’t taken advantage of federal money, “so it wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t take advantage.”

Berman specifically mentions how the state declined federal funding for gun violence prevention earlier this year that was made possible through the Safer Communities Act passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in 2022.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement evaluated the federal grant but rejected it when it realized that it wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline to apply because of “complex compliance requirements,” FLDE spokesperson Gretl Plessinger told the Orlando Sentinel in March. Five other states also declined those funds, according to the Department of Justice’s list of grant recipients.