Friday, January 19, 2018
Business

Florida utilities' loss of $6.1 billion on bad fuel bets draws criticism

If you consistently lost money at a Las Vegas casino year after year, some would argue you have a gambling problem and ought to stay away from the poker table.

In the world of Florida's electric utilities, losses totaling billions of dollars in bets on the future price of fuel result in a far different conclusion.

The utilities say the practice, which led to $6.1 billion in losses paid for by their customers, is a good thing for ratepayers and should continue.

That loss figure is cited by the Office of Public Counsel in the opening of a fight to convince state regulators to consider ending the practice of Florida's investor-owned utilities "hedging" the price of fuel for power plants. In a hedge, a utility agrees to buy a volume of fuel in the future at a fixed price. If they agree to buy 1,000 gallons of oil to be delivered next year at $100 a barrel, utilities win if the market price climbs above $100. They lose if it falls below that.

On Thursday, the OPC will ask the Florida Public Service Commission to make hedging losses a central issue during their annual debate over utility electric rates. And the counsel's office, which represents ratepayers before the PSC, said losses should be noted in the agency's annual order that sets those rates. That way, it says, consumers will see the risk.

In the long run, the counsel's office wants to challenge whether hedging should continue at all.

Hedging losses since 2002, plus forecast losses for 2015, are jaw-dropping, the counsel's office says: $1.4 billion for Duke Energy Florida, $390 million for Tampa Electric, $4.1 billion for Florida Power & Light and $171 million for Gulf Power. (Duke disputes the numbers and said its losses are $1.1 billion.)

The counsel's office tally translates to $815 on average for every electric customer in Florida.

"The utilities are just not very good at predicting prices," said Charles Rehwinkel, deputy public counsel. "Every year we thought that this can't keep happening and that it would reverse but the losses keep coming … I don't think customers really realize they're paying for $6 billion in losses."

The main reason for those losses has been natural gas prices that have fallen in recent years farther than the utilities expected as massive new domestic gas reserves have been discovered, utilities say. Natural gas is used to produce a majority of Florida's electricity.

Utilities argue that hedging is still a good deal for customers because it limits volatility in fuel prices and wide swings in electric bills, which they said is especially important for those living on a budget or businesses that need to accurately forecast future costs. The PSC also notes hedging prevents continual readjustment of electric rates during the year.

Utilities say they do not profit when the hedges lead to savings. Customers pay all loses via higher electric bills, but they would also reap all savings.

"Because of the risk mitigation benefits, and specifically with regards to natural gas which makes up the largest portion of Florida's fuel portfolio, we believe hedging — a standard practice in the utility industry across the nation — continues to be a prudent course of action," said Duke spokeswoman Suzanne Barr Grant.

The utilities correctly note that hedging losses are not restricted to Florida. But higher hedging losses posted by other utilities outside Florida have renewed debate about whether they are in the customers' best interest. A few states, the counsel's office said, have already moved to stop their utilities from hedging given continued losses.

Utilities and the PSC dispute descriptions of hedges as bets or attempts to out-guess the market. They said they are simply limiting price spikes and volatility and are not gambling with customers' money.

"I think it's easy from an historical perspective to look back and say you shouldn't have done something," said Sam Forrest, FPL vice president of energy marketing and trading. "We don't manage our business that way… Hedges do exactly what they were designed to do, which is reduce the volatility of the bill."

But by no means were hedges intended to be persistent money losers. PSC staff and the utilities have previously argued that hedge losses and gains should even out over a long period.

"Over the long run, the expectation is that gains and losses will cancel out," PSC staff said in a 2010 report. In fact, in some years, the utilities hedging is in the black. Duke saved customers $121 million in 2005 and $120 million in 2008. Those gains, however, were eclipsed by the $556 million loss from 2009 alone. Duke has lost money on hedging every year since 2009 and projects a $196 million loss this year, counsel's office figures show.

The biggest one-year loss on the books for any utility belongs to FPL, which lost $1.6 billion in 2009 as natural gas prices plummeted.

"Natural gas hedging provides price certainty for a portion of the… natural gas needed to generate electricity for customers," TECO spokeswoman Sylvia Vega said in a written statement. "This price certainty protects customers from the potential price spikes that have been common in natural gas pricing."

She noted that even when prices have not spiked to higher levels, "customers still received the benefit of protection from spikes, which can be viewed as a form of insurance protection."

PSC staff said in 2010 that hedging opposition was somewhat predictable.

"Of course, during times of historically low prices for natural gas, the tendency will be to question the effectiveness of hedging," the report said. "Staff believes that will always be the case — hedging will be cheered when there are gains and decried when there are losses."

Yet, questions are certainly mounting with losses. Jon Moyle, a lawyer representing the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, said some of its members now oppose hedging.

"I think a lot of FIPUG members would just as soon not have hedging and just pay at the pump," he said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.

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