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Robert Trigaux

At PSC, chairman Graham's mantra for governing energy world is keep it cheap, keep it basic



artgrahampscchairhandooutphoto.jpgWake up and good morning. Art Graham, chairman of Florida's Public Service Commission, stopped by the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times Tuesday with a couple of messages with this common theme:

If it costs more than the basics, we're not interested. But let's get specific:

1. He's visiting newspapers to try and re-establish a better line of communications after years of the PSC getting, he says, bad press. He does not deny the past PSC was a political fiasco, a tool of certain legislators and (at times) a perceived stooge of big utilities. But Graham insists there's a new PSC team on board and they deserve a clean slate of friendlier coverage. Graham's coming off a July 29 zing in the South Florida Sun Sentinel that says he met with a lobbyist for TECO Energy and other state utilities without any consumer advocate attending. State law bars PSC members from talking to such utility folks about "pending issues" without inviting consumer advocates and others to join the discusson. There's the rub. The PSC says pending issues were not discussed, so, the commission wonders: What's all the noise about? To Graham's credit, he's out making an in-person effort with the media this week.

2. Don't expect Florida to be on the leading edge of alternative energy, despite past Gov. Charlie Crist's ambitious if brief dreams to make the Sunshine State a leader in that field. Nope, now it's all about "what generates the most electricity at the least cost." And to Graham's eye those are the traditional sources of generating electricity, including coal (yes, he still sees possibilities for coal), natural gas and new nuclear power. Blaming a bad economy, Graham cited the poor Floridian "three months behind on his mortgage" and in no shape to handle an extra $6.71 per month on his utility bill to help subsidize other ways to broaden how Florida can use energy. (He did not explain the ongoing monthly surcharge paid by Floridians for a proposed Progress Energy or FPL nuclear power plants.) Read more about Graham's take on nuclear power in St. Petersburg Times reporter Ivan Penn's story here.

3. Graham offered some smart suggestions of some simple ways to improve energy efficiency in Florida.  For instance, if homes had a basic device in the house that told homeowners whether they were using a lot or little electricity, it would probably change their behavior. Also encouraging residential users (perhaps by pricing incentives?) to use less electricity at peak hours, like 7-8 am or 5:30-6:30 pm, would mean Florida would not have to build so many power plants just to accommodate those 2-hour peaks during each day. All this sounds good, but Graham offered up these ideas but never indicated that the PSC was (a) pressing the power industry to make this stuff happen or (b) urging state legislators to change the rules.

4. I also asked Graham whether it bothered him that the last couple of JD Power regional surveys asking residential customers how satisfied they were with their electric utility had found Progress Energy Florida and TECO-owned Tampa Electric were at the very bottom of the barrel. See for yourself here. Graham's response? Sure that's a concern -- if he had been aware of it. I wonder how hard Graham (and his staff) really tries to stay up on such matters related to customer concerns as opposed to utility preferences. Come on guys, you can do better than this.

Graham was appointed to the Florida PSC by Gov. Crist in July 2010 and was reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott to serve a term through January 2014. In October 2010, he was elected PSC chair through Jan. 1, 2012.

On Tuesday, I did appreciate Graham's personal tale about growing up with a stepfather who would watch his home's spinning electric meter and then yell at  his family to turn things off. But I doubt we will see much support for innovation in Florida's energy world from this state commission.

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, St. Petersburg Times

[Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2011 5:25pm]


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