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Trigaux: Can Duke Energy Florida's new chief grow a business when customers use less power?

Let's hope Harry Sideris has a bit of Harry Houdini in him.

After some rough years, it may take a bit of a magician to reimagine Duke Energy Florida's public image and growth strategy.

Such is the tough task ahead. A self-described "mountain boy" from Asheville, N.C. (before it became hip, he says), Sideris succeeded Alex Glenn earlier this year as Duke Energy Florida's state president based in St. Petersburg.

After all, Duke still must make amends for the extra costs of prematurely shuttering its only nuclear power plant in Florida. Separately, Duke is about to start charging Florida ratepayers more in January to pay for expenses for work done on a nuclear power plant planned — but never delivered — in Levy County. That plant became too expensive to finish, yet Duke holds on to a federal license to reboot the Levy site if nuclear regains credibility.

Then there is the exasperating status of Duke Energy Florida's business and residential customer service ratings — worst in the state among big power companies — catalogued year after year in J.D. Power surveys. And then there are Duke Energy Florida's electricity rates, which are on the rise again. They're higher than those at neighboring Tampa Electric and even pricier than those charged by Florida Power & Light.

Given time, Sideris predicts the electricity rates of big utilities will start to get much closer to one another.

After 21 years and six moves at Duke that include a previous stint in St. Petersburg running the Bartow power plant on St. Petersburg's Weedon Island, Sideris already knows the score in Florida. In his first sitdown with the Tampa Bay Times, the state president, 46, outlined four priorities across a broad agenda. The highlights of Sideris wants:

• To "transform" customer service, mainly by giving customers better technology and more timely information about their electricity options and prices for power. Most of that promised upgrade will arrive in the next three to four years (yes, years) as Duke installs more smart meters across its Florida service territory. Once installed, the meters will help customers better track electricity usage, enable them to tap electricity at off-peak hours and avoid shocker monthly bills by knowing what they are spending day by day. Just over one quarter of Duke customers in Florida have smart meters at the moment. Smart grids, too, will help reroute power around downed lines just as GPS helps drivers avoid traffic jams.

• To build more large-scale solar power plants in rural parts of Duke's service territory where land is cheaper and there's less local resistance to acres upon acres of solar panels. So far, Duke's built solar panel facilities near Perry in Taylor County, producing 5 megawatts, and also one in Osceola that's the size of 13 football fields and produces 4 megawatts. A third facility in Suwannee County is under way.

Look for 750 more megawatts of solar in Florida over the next decade, Sideris says. It sounds ambitious, but all of these plants combined mean solar still will account for less than 10 percent of the utility's 8,500-megawatt output. Also, don't look for a big Duke endorsement of rooftop solar, which the company says is less cost effective. Even so, the company works with 200-250 Florida customers per month who want rooftop systems. "We still feel the pricing and economics of that don't make sense yet," he says.

• To improve customer safety with better awareness of the dangers of down power lines.

• To engage Duke employees more in having a say in what the company is doing and finding better ways to do it. He also wants to reach out to the communities where Duke operates in the state, which range from Tampa Bay to Orlando and north along the west coast to Tallahassee. Sideris says education is a personal passion and a sector Duke claims to be particularly committed to.

So, four priorities — "easier said than done," Sideris says. "Nothing earth-shattering."

On a more personal side, Sideris seems wowed by the renaissance in downtown St. Petersburg since he was here 11 years ago. That was when he met Catinna, a teacher in St. Petersburg, who would become his wife. Sideris says she's happy to back here. The couple's kids grew up in North Carolina and were more dubious about relocating to Florida. Sideris says a little "bribing" with season tickets to Universal Studios in Orlando and Harry Potter attractions there are going a long way in smoothing their concerns.

Keeping lots of constituencies happy? That's one magical talent that just might serve Sideris well in his new gig.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

For Harry Sideris: three big challenges

1. How to sell more electricity in this state?

More people are moving to Florida. But Floridians on average are using less electricity. In the first quarter of 2017, Duke saw its residential electricity sales drop 8.4 percent to 3,824 from 4,173 gigawatt hours (gwh) in the same period of 2016. Total gwh sales, including business and industrial users, fell 1.8 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier — even as the average number of customers in Florida rose 1.4 percent. "Everybody moving to Florida is using less energy," Sideris says. Everything is becoming much more energy efficient.

What's the implication for a power company when people use less power? "We will build fewer plants," he acknowledges.

2. How to improve worst customer service rankings among big power companies in state?

Duke Energy Florida has ranked lowest for years in J.D. Power's annual residential customer service satisfaction survey. What was Duke Energy Florida's response after last year's survey? "Duke Energy Florida is making significant strides in our customer satisfaction."

We've heard versions of this defense for years. So here's the bottom line: When the 2017 J.D. Power survey comes out this summer, will Duke Energy Florida rank lowest again?

3. How can Duke diversify the fuels it depends on to generate electricity?

Wisely, Duke Energy Florida wants to maintain a mix of such fuels as natural gas, coal and solar to run its power plants that produce electricity. The utility's goal is to minimize dependence on one fuel in the event its price skyrockets and force up electric rates. The bad news is Duke Energy Florida had to prematurely close its single nuclear power plant in the state. In place of nuclear power, Duke is building a natural gas plant in Citrus County, sharply increasing the company's already high reliance on natural gas in its fuel mix. Coal is not a viable fuel, despite President Donald Trump's desire to revive the industry. Duke is pursuing more solar power but that will grow slowly. So what can Duke do to shrink its heavy dependence on natural gas? Not much for now. Pray natural gas remains at its low prices.

Trigaux: Can Duke Energy Florida's new chief grow a business when customers use less power? 05/22/17 [Last modified: Monday, May 22, 2017 5:01pm]
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