TALLAHASSEE — Fed-up Tampa Bay area state senators want utilities to either start building nuclear power plants or lose a state law that allows them to charge customers for the plants in advance.
Duke Energy customers already are on the hook for $1.5 billion for a proposed $24 billion plant in Levy County that the utility has delayed for almost a decade and still has not committed to build. The utility gets to pocket about $150 million of that money.
The lawmakers also are proposing a reduction in the amount the utilities can earn from the money they collect through the nuclear advance fee. Under the proposal, the utilities would refund any money they earn from the fee if they never build the plants.
"What we can't continue is spending billions of dollars on rate of return and even profits without results,'' Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Dade City, one of the bill's sponsors, said during a news conference Thursday.
Lawmakers in the House say the senate proposal does not go far enough.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, are sponsoring a House bill to repeal the law altogether.
Fasano said the law has cost customers far too much money, though Duke, through its subsidiary Progress Energy Florida, "has no intention of building nuclear power plants."
"I do appreciate these senators stepping up to the plate in some form or fashion," Fasano said. "If we can get something done, I would be pleased. Satisfied, to me, would be the complete repeal of the law."
Lawmakers in 2006 passed the legislation as a way to hasten construction of nuclear plants. The goal was to diversify the state's energy mix to prevent an overreliance on natural gas, which could fluctuate in price and cause a spike in customers' electric bills.
The law included no penalties should the utilities mess up. No benchmarks. No caps on spending. No caps on how much a utility could pocket if a project failed. And no deadlines.
"There were no provisions to look out for the consumers," said Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, one of the Senate bill's sponsors. "It has no accountability. It's an open-ended checkbook."
Legg said the Senate bill will be filed next week.
The most significant proposal is a provision to create a sunset date for the law, unless a utility begins construction of a new nuclear power plant before that date.
None of the utilities had seen details of the legislation before Thursday's news conference, Legg said. Though lawmakers have requested suggestions from the utilities about amending the law, none of the power companies has made any recommendations, he said.
Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light, which proposes to build two new reactors at its Turkey Point power station in South Florida, say the law should remain intact.
"We do not support any changes to the law," said Mark Bubriski, an FPL spokesman. "Repealing the law would effectively kill all investment in new nuclear power for Florida, and we believe that would be very short-sighted policy."
Sterling Ivey, a Duke spokesman, said the utility will review the bill.
"We remain committed to a reasonable discussion about the importance of this state law and how it is part of a statewide energy policy for Florida," Ivey said.
The legislative proposals come as the Florida Supreme Court continues to review a petition by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The environmental group asked the court to declare the law unconstitutional because it is a hidden tax that does not require the utilities to actually deliver any goods or services.
Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance, said she is encouraged that Tallahassee is at least taking action on the law that she said is wrongfully taking money from consumers.
"A crucial first step was taken today by state leaders who are promising to stand up for consumers in Florida and start a much-needed dialogue about energy policy," Glickman said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.