Urging Duke to act as a "good corporate citizen," Pinellas County's most powerful state lawmaker called on the utility Thursday to abandon the idea of charging customers higher rates while it revamps its meter-reading process.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said angry Duke customers contacted his office in the past couple of days, asking for someone to reel in a utility they see as incessantly taking advantage of ratepayers.
The Tampa Bay Times reported this week that Duke was making changes to its meter-reading routes. Those changes led Duke to temporarily extend as many as 267,000 customers' billing cycles, typically a month, by as many as 12 days. Customer bills revealed additional charges in some cases of $100 or more for the extended days and, for some, the additional days bumped them into a higher rate class.
That's because Duke charges customers $11.34 for every 100 kilowatt hours of usage up to 1,000 kilowatt hours. But above that, it charges $13.70 for every 100 kilowatt hours.
"While it is understandable that customers are charged higher rates when they actually use more electricity, the practice of pushing customers into higher usage brackets because the company extends its billing cycle is simply no way to treat people," Latvala wrote to Duke Energy Florida president R. Alexander "Alex" Glenn.
"I hope you will agree that such a practice is unfair and unreasonable, even if it is allowed by current state regulations," Latvala added,
Sterling Ivey, a Duke spokesman, said that the company is reviewing the senator's letter and that the utility's officials "look forward to sharing information about the reroute project directly with Sen. Latvala."
Bev DeMello, a spokeswoman for the state Public Service Commission, cited a commission rule that allows Duke to charge the higher rate as it works through the change in its meter-reading routes.
Latvala, known as one of Tallahassee's most effective legislators, said he is studying whether it is indeed legal for Duke to charge the higher rate. He said he plans to look into options to protect consumers against any wrongful charges.
"Although it might be legal for utility companies to squeeze additional money from customers in this manner," Latvala emphasized in his letter to Glenn, "it certainly isn't moral."
The latest billing issue comes on the heels of the power company's two failed nuclear efforts that are costing customers $3.2 billion. The botched upgrade at the Crystal River nuclear plant forced the permanent and premature closure of the utility's lone reactor in Florida, and the company canceled its proposed Levy County nuclear project — though customers continue to pay for both in their bills.
Duke now wants its 1.7 million Florida customers to pay $2 billion to build new natural gas facilities and other improvements to make up for the power that the nuclear plants would have produced.
Meanwhile, Duke wants state regulators to gut its electricity conservation goals by nearly 90 percent. At the same time, the utility's power reserve or excess capacity stands at 25 percent this summer — 5 percentage points above state requirements for utilities to have for emergencies. Those reserves will increase to 38 percent come this winter.
"It's just getting to be too much," Latvala told the Times on Thursday.
Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who has spoken out against the utility since he entered politics, said in response to the latest Duke dustup that the utility "continues to increase the cost of our electricity at every turn."
Some consumers said the latest bump in bills is stretching them beyond their means.
Jim Wright, 58, of St. Petersburg said he already was struggling to pay his August bill with what he believes are the days added to his billing cycle. Before he could pay that larger bill of $274.44, a new set of charges arrived for $235.65.
"My total due now is $510.09," Wright said. "For the first time in years, I cannot pay my bill."
Wright said Duke offered to extend his payment time, as the utility has offered to all of its customers affected by the bigger bills. But he said he simply cannot handle the size of the payments thrust upon him.
"Duke was more than happy to refer me to several charitable agencies," Wright said. "What a bunch of greedy, profit-starved jerks. The Public Service Commission is supposed to protect us from this sort of clear scam. It should be criminal and a class-action lawsuit filed."
Contact Ivan Penn at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.