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Robert Trigaux

After listening to PSC doubletalk, I fear for Florida's future

ronbrisechairman2012flapsc.jpgWake up and good morning. The chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission, Ron Brise, strolled into the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday afternoon to face a barrage of questions from editors focused on this theme: Progress Energy, the dominant provider of electricity for Tampa Bay and most of west central Florida, has demonstrated a pitiful track record for managing its nuclear power plant assets by:

(1) breaking Crystal River 3, its only nuke plant in Florida in 2009 and still waffling over how to fix it and;

(2) proposing a new nuclear power plant in Levy County then delaying the project year after year as estimates to build it soar to a seemingly prohibitive $24 billion and counting,

(3) and all the while enjoying a perverted 2006 law passed by our not-so-bright state legislators that lets the utility raise customer rates now and even more in the coming years to cover some of the massive costs of a Levy plant that many experts suggest will, in the end, never actually be built. Oh yeah, Progress Energy does not even have to reimburse customers for all those years of higher rates.

The main points of the exchange between the Times editorial board and Brise's fumbling defense of the toothless PSC are captured here in my column in today's newspaper.

But in this posting I want to address the astonishing culture of bureaucracy that was on display by the PSC chairman. Brise is a former state Democratic representative who was appointed to the PSC in the summer of 2010, then elevated to its chairmanship this past December.

In response to pointed questions about whether the PSC could even stop the runaway Levy County project of Progress Energy, Brise could offer only the most tepid responses. He resorted to bizarre arguments suggesting the PSC would review the merits of building the nuclear power plant after it was built (huh?). And he insisted Progress Energy customers would benefit from the stable output and price of electricity from the nuclear plant -- if it is indeed ever built -- but never connected the dots that customers now are paying more and more fees for the plant with absolutely no benefit to customers today. And Brise never directly tackled the price tag of Levy... At what ludicrous price does it become obvious that the cost to build the plant is an insult to the U.S. system of capitalism that says money and resources should go to competitive projects, not financial black holes?

How laughable that Florida Gov. Rick Scott crows about his private sector discipline in stopping a $2 billion high speed rail project using federal funds, yet remains mum and seemingly oblivious to a power company charging Floridians directly for a $24 billion power plant to generate electricity that could be built using alternative power sources (like cheap, plentiful natural gas) for a tiny fraction of the same cost.

Businesses and residential customers of Progress Energy that must pay far higher electricity rates than, say, customers of Florida Power & Light south of Tampa Bay, pay a ridiculous surcharge for such a basic and critical commodity. It's a shame Florida gives monopoly status to such an uncompetitive power provider.

There were brief moments Wednesday when Brise appeared as if he wanted to speak plainly without channeling PSC dogma. But alas, it was not to be.

The meeting with Brise was confirmation that the PSC remains an agency completely under the thumb of state legislators who enjoy the political largesse of giant power companies. The PSC briefly showed its independence several years ago and was quickly slapped down by the legislature for showing any backbone in utility decisions. The current PSC administration is well aware of the same threat.

Brise said it was not his place to suggest policy changes. He answered too vaguely to my taste when asked if the PSC really represented Floridians in matters of electricity rates. And more than once, Brise referred to the "four corners" in which the PSC chairman has to work, as if he conducts business from a small closet and will get his hand slapped (or more likely lose his job) if he ventures beyond.

I'm not blaming Brise. He's right. But it's a travesty to witness. The PSC comes across as an absurdist creation of Franz Kafka, always ready to invoke some rule or policy that prohibits from taking common sense action against projects even so glaringly surreal as a $24 billion-plus nuke plant. I fear for Florida's future.

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times

[Last modified: Friday, June 1, 2012 6:24am]


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