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Electric bills to soar, further squeezing budgets

When it comes to energy prices, it feels like Tampa Bay folks just got sucker punched.

Gasoline prices peaked in mid July here at an average price per gallon of $4.009. But now they're nearly 40 cents cheaper — still way too high, but any drop these days is worth cheering about.

Then Bam! Now we're told already rising electricity rates are about to take off like some runaway electric train. Saturday's story by Times reporter Asjylyn Loder says Progress Energy bills — in Florida, that is — could increase 31 percent starting in January. Rates would rise from both increasing fuel costs and a "higher-than-expected" charge in advance for a $17-billion nuclear power plant in Levy County that won't kick in until 2016.

That's a $34-a-month increase in the cost of 1,000 kilowatt hours, from $110.59 to $144.86. In sheer out-of-wallet expenses, that's more than $40 a month — an additional $480 a year — to be paid by a typical residential customer to keep an average household's lights and A/C running.

It's a nasty trend as many utilities push through some of the largest rate increases in decades, raising rates by double digits.

Just a word of caution to electric utilities long used to getting their own way on rate hikes. When you're demanding 31-percent increases, suddenly you start to look a lot like an insurance company. And that's when you may start to encounter a political backlash.

Hard to believe it was only six years ago when Progress Energy dramatically dropped electric rates in Florida to less than $82 per 1,000 kilowatt hours. That's a difference of some $62 from the proposed prices next year for the same amount of electricity.

That's hard to swallow, harder to budget for. Take heed that energy costs may not stop rising and consume even higher percentages of household income.

The extraordinary rising price tags come at an especially tough time for many consumers. Tomorrow is Labor Day, a time of the year when working people tend to take at least a moment to assess: How am I doing? Yes, most folks are still employed (though unemployment is rising). But even those with jobs find wage increases meager and basic costs for food, health care and, now, electricity rates far outpacing income.

Progress Energy Florida chief executive Jeff Lyash, a not-unsympathetic fellow, suggests, in effect, we all wake up and smell a "new energy reality."

Perhaps. But just for the record, customers of Progress Energy in the company's home state of North Carolina have a typical residential bill of just $97 a month, according to the hometown Raleigh News & Observer.

And their rates will rise closer to just 16 percent rather than our 31 percent, though customers there still face increases to pay for nuclear plants.

Not that Tampa Electric customers can take comfort. The utility's rates will rise from $114 to $140 in January and to $150 by May.

Tampa Electric president Chuck Black called the need to raise rates "truly unfortunate" but said there was no choice.

How odd if gas prices began to feel cheap by comparison.

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

Electric bills to soar, further squeezing budgets 08/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 5:11pm]
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