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Progress Energy's rate increase to pay for nuclear plant comes under scrutiny

Karl Nurse was not happy to read a Tampa Bay Times story that said Progress Energy customers would be paying $49 a month in 2020 for a nuclear power plant that would not begin operating until the next year.

Late last year, Nurse, a St. Petersburg City Council member, proposed a resolution asking the Legislature to repeal Progress' ability to charge customers in advance for the plant.

That prompted a call from Progress Energy, asking for a meeting.

On Jan. 9, Nurse said, he talked with Chris Flack, Progress' executive director for external communications. Flack, according to Nurse, "just said the $49 is wrong. It's $13."

Later, Nurse got a copy of the same document the Times used as the basis for its story and noted its source: Progress Energy.

Dated July 7, 2010, the document is the utility's filing to the state Public Service Commission on the impact of the proposed nuclear plant on residential rates. The estimated monthly rate increase for 2020 is listed at $49.29.

Now that he has seen Progress' 2010 document, Nurse said, "the numbers are clear. I didn't know it was their document."

The utility never asked the Times to correct its story, which ran Aug. 5.

Progress spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said there must have been a misunderstanding between Nurse and Flack.

"Clearly, there's confusion in the conversation," she said. "It is our intention to go back to Mr. Nurse and to make sure his questions are answered and this confusion is cleared up.

"The document you have there is correct," Grant said. "I don't know that Mr. Flack said $13 for 2020."

Flack did not return a message left at his office.

Grant said that it has always been Progress' intention to attract co-owners. If it succeeded, she said, ratepayers would pay less for the nuclear plant.

"It's never been our intention to have 100 percent ownership of the plant," Grant said. "Our intention was to have joint owners."

As of yet, she said, Progress has no co-owners for the plant.

Nurse passed copies of Progress' rate document to members of the City Council's legislative affairs committee.

On Friday, the committee chair, council member Jeff Danner, showed the document to Melissa Seixas, a Progress community relations manager, who was there on another matter.

She said "she never remembered it being that high," Danner said. "She wasn't familiar with that document."

Danner said he was sending Progress a formal request to participate in the decision about the resolution to repeal the advance fee. He said he hopes to schedule that workshop meeting in a week or so.

St. Petersburg is one of a several cities across the state considering resolutions opposing the nuclear cost recovery fee, which allows utilities to charge customers for construction of nuclear plants before they go into operation.

If St. Petersburg passes the resolution, it would join Fort Lauderdale as one of the largest municipalities to urge repeal of the charges, Nurse said. Other resolutions have come from smaller cities in areas covered by FPL, the state's largest utility.

Opponents of the so-called "advance fee" say it adds an undue burden on customers for projects that might never materialize. In addition, opponents note that customers will not own the plant, a distinction that belongs to the utility's investors — who do not share in the financial risk.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is sponsoring legislation to repeal the advance fee. But so far, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, chairman of the energy committee and the majority leader, has not scheduled a hearing.

A spokeswoman for Gardiner said the bill has been referred to committee for future consideration.

"I have great concern that our request will be ignored," Fasano said. "That's why I urge people to contact their legislators. Contact the chair.

"At the minimum, a vote should be taken," he said.

Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, filed a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, has been working for years to have the nuclear cost recovery fee repealed. He said the $20 billion nuclear plant, which Progress wants to build in Levy County, is too expensive. He complained that Progress and other utilities continue to downplay the costs of nuclear power.

Newton said he believes the effort to portray nuclear as inexpensive is part of the reason Progress' representatives contradicted their own document.

"It would be funny, but given what we're facing, it's not a laughing matter," Newton said. "Every time they do something like this, it helps me with the repeal bill."

Last year, Progress updated its projected figures for the monthly impact of the Levy plant on rate payers.

The new figure for 2020 is up 23 cents, to $49.52.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge.

Progress Energy's rate increase to pay for nuclear plant comes under scrutiny 01/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 11:24pm]
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