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Charging Florida utility customers in advance for nuclear power plants likely to persist

Duke Energy has abandoned efforts to fix its severely damaged Crystal River nuclear plant in Citrus County.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2012)

Duke Energy has abandoned efforts to fix its severely damaged Crystal River nuclear plant in Citrus County.

It was supposed to save Duke Energy's customers millions of dollars. It was supposed to make building the Levy County nuclear plant both faster and cheaper.

Instead, the 2006 Florida law — which lets utilities charge customers up front for building a nuclear power plant — could cost Duke's customers $3 billion in return for nothing.

That's the customers' share of a combined tab for advance charges tied to the Levy County nuclear project that was scuttled this week, along with Duke's abandoned efforts to fix its severely damaged Crystal River nuclear plant.

Several politicians past and present were quick to blame easy money from the advance fee for the runaway costs.

"I think it's outrageous," former governor and potential gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist said Friday. "I think they've made the greatest case one could make for never doing (the advance recovery fee) again."

Does that mean the law will get repealed?

"I'm afraid not," Crist said.

His political prediction is a popular one. Both backers and opponents of charging ratepayers in advance say it's likely the law will live on, giving Florida Power & Light a ready funding source for building two nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, a potential $20 billion project.

"The chance of us ever repealing this, unfortunately, is still slim to none," said state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, one of the more ardent critics of the prepay plan. "The power that Florida Power & Light has and Duke has in Tallahassee is just too overwhelming."

Some doubt that lawmakers will even bring up the measure after it was tweaked last session with modest changes that Scott signed into law in June.

The revised law states that if a utility cannot demonstrate that it plans to complete the construction of a nuclear plant, it will no longer be allowed to collect money. The utility has 10 years after it gets its license to begin construction or lose access to the fee.

The new law says the utility must prove that a plant is both economically "feasible" and "reasonable" to continue moving forward with a project.

Even after the changes, the law still does not require utilities to refund any of the money they spend before canceling a project. In the Levy case, that lets Duke pocket about $150 million in profits, even though it's canceling the project.

Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said he wishes the law had a clawback provision that would make utilities refund ratepayer dollars spent on projects that are later canceled. Shy of that, however, Legg said he thinks the revised law has "significant improvements" to help hold utilities accountable.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey, said the up to $1.5 billion of ratepayer money spent by Duke and Progress Energy on Levy was "unconscionable. I feel like the consumer has been taken advantage of."

Nevertheless, Simpson said that last year's revisions may be sufficient to stop future "egregious" abuses.

Like Legg, Simpson backed a clawback provision that was included in a Senate version of last session's bill but failed to garner support in the House. It's unclear whether another attempt at a clawback clause would fare any better.

House Speaker Will Weatherford's office did not return requests for comment Friday. John Tupps, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, would not say whether the Legislature should re-examine the law.

"We are confident that the Public Service Commission will make the best decision for Florida consumers," Tupps said in a statement, declining to elaborate.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who won election over an established politician largely by campaigning to overturn the fee, vowed to keep fighting, regardless of the odds.

"I'm going to continue to raise holy hell about that fee. It is wrong," he said.

"Consumers are not shareholders. They should not be put in the shoes of investors when they're just users of electricity … and they're a captive audience. The power company has a monopoly, (so) we don't have a choice of who we can pick."

It may be an uphill battle in Tallahassee, Dudley said, but he takes heart in the "monumental" victory of Duke's pulling the plug on the Levy plant to stop more ratepayer money from being drained.

"With the drumbeat getting louder and louder for repealing the fee, we're starting to reach a critical mass where they can't continue doing what they're doing," he said. "The yelling and screaming so far, even though it brought about small change, it brought about change."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

Charging Florida utility customers in advance for nuclear power plants likely to persist 08/02/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 3, 2013 12:22am]
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