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Advocates want Hillsborough to use available federal grant dollars to relieve the energy burden

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"In the last four years, we've seen TECO rates go up 62%. And folks, income has not gone up at 62% at the same time, so that energy burden continues to increase,” said Brooke Ward with Food and Water Watch.

Families in Hillsborough County could get their electricity bills lowered if commissioners decide to use a federal grant of $831,960 toward relieving the energy burden. Multiple advocacy groups sent a letter to commissioners urging them to do so ahead of their regular meeting Wednesday.

Hillsborough County staff have already applied to use the funds from the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant for a solar project and to also hire a consultant for water resources, but the 24 groups that sent the letter to commissioners want the money to directly help financially strained consumers.

"We feel that this is a missed opportunity for the county to really step up and start doing something to meet the demands and requests of their constituents to help alleviate skyrocketing utility bills," said Brooke Ward with Food and Water Watch.

They want the grant dollars to eliminate the energy burden that's "plaguing Floridians."

Energy burden refers to the amount of income spent on paying an electric bill.

Ward said the energy burden should be between around 2-3% of income, but she said there are many Hillsborough residents paying upwards of 11% of their income for their electricity bills.

"In the last four years, we've seen TECO rates go up 62%. And folks, income has not gone up at 62% at the same time, so that energy burden continues to increase,” she said.

She said the funds could also be used to create an energy efficiency or climate plan which the county does not currently have.

“It would change the system that we're operating in which we know would ultimately reduce bills for Hillsborough families,” said Ward.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently rejected $346 million in federal energy efficiency funds through the Inflation Reduction Act that could have helped Floridians.

Ward said that money DeSantis denied could potentially end up being administered through local governments.

“The money DeSantis rejected would have directly gone to helping with energy efficiency upgrades. We know that energy efficiency is the quickest, cheapest and most efficient way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and reduce our bills by using less energy,” Ward said..

“So, since Floridians have been robbed of that opportunity by the governor, we want to ensure that Hillsborough County is stepping in and not following in his footsteps, but instead stepping up to ensure that the money comes to the Hillsborough ratepayers who are struggling.”

Hillsborough submitted its application Aug. 4 proposing to use an estimated $300,000 to employ technical consultant services to develop an energy efficiency and conservation strategy for implementation at the One Water Campus and Southeast Landfill site, and an estimated $500,000 would be used for the expansion of the Falkenburg Warehouse Solar PV System to bring it closer to Net Zero.

“Both initiatives are aimed toward creating greater energy efficiency within the county’s facilities and services to help ensure that savings can be passed down to County ratepayers,” said Assistant County Administrator George Cassady of Public Utilities in an email.

As of Sept. 8, the county’s application was in the queue for review by the DOE. A spokesman for Chairman Ken Hagan said no additional action is required on behalf of the board of commissioners at this time.

At Wednesday's regular board of county commissioners meeting, more than a dozen people spoke during the public comment period in favor of relieving energy burdens through federal funding.

In response, Commissioner Pat Kemp moved to have Cassady meet with Ward regarding this particular grant and other potential funding opportunities, including the funds DeSantis left on the table.

Kemp has requested a comprehensive report back to the board of commissioners.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.