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Crisis of confidence undermines the Florida Public Service Commission

When it comes to protections from soaring electricity rates, we're in deeper trouble than I thought.

And I thought we were already up to our necks.

In a visit Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida Public Service Commission chairman Ron Brise offered a fumbling defense of his agency's oversight of Progress Energy's struggling nuclear ambitions.

The PSC is the state government agency meant to protect Floridians from gouging utility rates and lousy performance by our power companies. So far, it has blessed Progress' ongoing and hideously expensive $24 billion plan — financed by charging customers higher rates now — to perhaps build a nuclear power plant in Levy County by 2024 or later.

Gov. Charlie Crist named Brise, a former Democratic state representative from Miami, to the commission in July 2010. He became PSC chairman in December 2011.

Crist said Brise, 37, was "known for his willingness to fight for Floridians, which is exactly what the Public Service Commission should do."

Too bad that's not what the PSC actually does. And Brise said nothing at Wednesday's meeting to suggest that will change any time soon.

Why do Progress' residential and business customers pay roughly 25 percent more for electricity than nearby Florida Power & Light users?

Progress is a newer player in the state, Brise responded.

That argument does not hold water. The North Carolina company first entered Florida by purchasing St. Petersburg's Florida Power Corp. in 2000. It soon aggressively lowered electric rates, boasting it was a more efficient company. And those rates now? More than 40 percent higher and climbing.

What would have to happen for the PSC to halt such a high-priced nuclear plant?

That's a "tough one," Brise said. As long as the spending seems appropriate, he said, the "nuclear cost recovery" law that lets Progress Energy charge customers years in advance must be honored.

What's his take on Progress Energy's track record on maintenance and repairs after the utility broke Crystal River 3 — its sole nuclear power plant in the state, shuttered since 2009? Brise said the company has "serious challenges." But only benign hearings are scheduled in the coming months.

Should the PSC suggest legislative changes to add more muscle to its oversight of big utilities? "I do not believe, personally, it is my place to generate and create policy," he said.

One Brise remark rang true when asked if residents lose confidence in a state government that no longer appears to serve their interests.

"I believe there is a confidence issue at the PSC," one that's existed for years, he acknowledged.

To obscure its lack of accountability, the PSC uses its own haze of vocabulary.

It cites avoided costs that ensure, by its accounting, nuclear power plants can get endorsed while other alternative-energy plants do not.

It considers the prudency of proposed power plants but fails to grasp the lunacy of charging strapped Floridians today for a long-delayed and overpriced $24 billion plant.

Maybe the PSC should add baloney to its regulatory repertoire. Sure heard a lot of that tossed around.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Crisis of confidence undermines the Florida Public Service Commission 05/30/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 9:50pm]
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