Just as plunging gas prices promise relief at the pump, cash-strapped consumers in the Tampa Bay area face another energy woe: soaring electric bills.
Rate increases, approved Wednesday, will hit customers just after the December holidays and just in time for the home heating bills that come with Florida's cooler months.
"That's bad," said Wofford Johnson, 75, a Tampa Electric customer and president of Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods, a group that has opposed Tampa Electric's rate increases.
"I think in today's economy it's really tough. There's lots of families out there that are on fixed incomes," Johnson said.
Progress Energy bills will increase 25 percent to pay for the rising cost of fuel and the early stages of its $17-billion nuclear plant. Tampa Electric bills will rise 12 percent to pay for fuel, with an additional increase possible in May.
"This is terrible," said Gulam Dean, 68, a Progress Energy customer in St. Petersburg. "A 25 percent rate increase? It's a crime. People are losing jobs, losing houses and can't afford food."
The Florida Public Service Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved the fuel rate increases. Progress Energy's nuclear plant rate increase was approved in October.
Commissioner Nancy Argenziano, a former state legislator with a reputation as a consumer champion, said state law gives the commission little latitude in approving fuel costs. Utilities are not allowed to profit from fuel. The costs are passed through to consumers. The commission's role is to determine that the utility acted prudently in buying the fuel, she explained.
"Overwhelmingly what I'm hearing from the consumer is, 'I can't pay any more. I just can't,' " Argenziano said. While she worried about the impact on consumers, she said she voted to approve the increases because the law left her little choice.
"When consumers ask why did we allow this, it's because we have to," Argenziano said.
Electric bills may continue to rise. Tampa Electric has asked for a base rate increase to pay for the rising cost of labor and commodities that are driving up the cost of doing business. If approved next year, Tampa Electric bills would increase again in May. Progress Energy has an agreement with the state on base rates, but it expires next year. The utility will need to decide early next year whether to ask for an increase.
Although fuel costs have been falling, they have not been low enough long enough to alter the utilities' long-term fuel cost projections. If fuel costs remain low or fall further, customers could see bills came down in mid 2009 or early 2010.
Suzanne Grant, Progress Energy spokeswoman, said the utility can't control the price of fuel.
"We feel that we've done what we can," Grant said. "We know there's never a good time to raise prices, and we know this is an especially hard time for customers."
Asjylyn Loder can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3117.