Holiday resident Ernest Dwight Douglass isn't happy that Progress Energy charges him each month for a nuclear power plant it won't open for at least a decade.
"Do you think I'll be around to use it?" said Douglass, 91, echoing a common theme among his age-group peers. "I don't think so."
His question raises another: How many of Progress Energy's more than 1.4 million residential customers will, to put it bluntly, die before the utility expects to fire up the Levy County plant in 2021?
In just the group currently 75 years old and up, almost 67,000 heads of households in Pinellas and Pasco counties will be dead by the time the plant generates its first kilowatt, a St. Petersburg Times analysis found. In the meantime, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, they will have doled out $62 million in advance fees.
Add the 60- to 74-year-olds, and the number leaps more than a third to almost 96,000 dead. If the plant gets delayed to 2027, a growing concern, two-thirds, or 165,225, of the 60-and-over set won't be around to benefit from the additional nuclear power.
And those numbers are conservative, as they only include current heads of households. They don't include other seniors living in those homes who are likely to die before the plant is built or people living in a group setting like a nursing home.
"Why should we as senior citizens be forced to pay for something that we may never use?" asked Douglass, a World War II veteran.
Economists call it "intergenerational transfer" or the collection of money from one generation of consumers to benefit another generation. It doesn't happen only to seniors. The younger set helps their elders by paying into Social Security and Medicare.
But an advance fee that could last decades for a project that may or may not materialize worsens the burden on those required to pay for it, in particular seniors who would not likely benefit from it at all.
To cover the cost of the $20 billion project, Progress Energy customers began paying for the plant in 2009. Currently, average customers pay about $5 a month, based on how much energy they use. That fee is projected to increase most years beginning in 2013, reaching four times the current amount in 2016 and 10 times, or about $50 a month for the average customer in 2020.
The advance fee, Progress said, helps decrease the financial burden on customers by avoiding long-term financing, and, when it comes online, the plant itself will save as much as $1.5 billion a year in fuel and emissions costs. The cost to seniors for the nuclear plant is no different than paying for other goods and services later generations enjoy, the utility said.
"Prior generations have helped pay for the roads, schools and other facilities that benefit us today," said Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy. "Likewise, today's Florida residents are a critical part of ensuring that our children and grandchildren will have the energy, roads, schools and other services needed next year and into the next decade."
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has tried unsuccessfully to repeal the charge through new legislation, said the premise for the advance fee and construction of the nuclear plant was that the entire project would cost $6 billion or less, it would come online by 2016 and growing customer demand would require more power generation.
"Now, it's triple the cost, Progress Energy can't give us a date when they're going to build, and now we're learning there isn't the need," Fasano said. "Many senior citizens, many people, will never ever see that power plant."
Fasano said he will try again to repeal the advance nuclear fee in next year's legislative session, though he acknowledged that the utilities have "enormous power and influence in Tallahassee." Many leaders in the state capital favor nuclear power, including the chairman of the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.
Still, Fasano said, "The majority of my colleagues would truly like to repeal this."
Douglass, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his wife at the Sunshine Christian Homes retirement community in Pasco County, lives on $1,200 a month from Social Security and a small pension from the Sherwin-Williams paint company. Statistically, he has a 1 in 12 chance of making it to 2021. Chances drop dramatically that he'll make it to 2027.
He grimaces at the thought of paying even more than he already does for the Levy nuclear plant, in particular because his $150 a month electric bill already runs higher than that of the average Progress customer.
"(An extra $50) will buy three or four gallons of milk . . . several loaves of bread," Douglass said. "We haven't had a Social Security raise for two or three years. The senior citizens are being gouged."
Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.