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Trigaux column: From Duke, the rare apology

Does being a monopoly mean never having to say you're sorry?

That Big Bully image is certainly the growing public perception of Duke Energy Florida, the dominant electric utility in west-central Florida and — let us not forget — part of North Carolina-based Duke Energy, the biggest power company in the United States.

So it comes as a mild shock that Duke Energy Florida on Wednesday came so tantalizingly close to expressing a formal apology — and meaning it.

The issue? A reorganization of meter readers by Duke that extended the billing cycles by up to 12 days for a couple hundred thousand Florida ratepayers. That action, coming amid record summer heat, forced many of those customers to pay for additional electricity priced at a higher tier.

Bottom line: More money, unfairly gained, for Duke.

Media coverage of this money grab, led by Tampa Bay Times business reporter Ivan Penn, raised a major stink among Duke consumers and, later, influential state lawmakers publicly criticized Duke and correctly questioned its moral judgment.

By then, even the Florida Public Service Commission, perennial winner of the state's Yes Men Award for gutless oversight of our power companies, almost flashed a moment of spine and questioned Duke's motives.

Grudgingly, I strongly suspect, Duke Energy backed off. This is what the company said in its own words Wednesday:

In response to our customers and the concerns of the Florida Public Service Commission, Duke said today that it will be issuing a credit to all customers whose bills were affected by the (meter reader) reroute.

''We apologize for any hardships and confusion we have caused our customers, and we will make this right," said Alex Glenn, state president of Duke Energy Florida. "We will continue to work with impacted customers until all credits have been issued. We are also taking steps to ensure that this does not happen again.''

I really do want to believe that Duke taking the higher road for once is a promising sign. But Duke's ongoing inability to address two big questions in Florida undermines its credibility.

1. Why does Duke charge such higher rates (a measure of a utility's inefficiency) for electricity than other big power companies, including Florida Power & Light and Tampa Electric?

Answer: Because it can. The limp PSC never demands accountability. If Duke were not a monopoly, competitors would run it out of business.

2. Why does Duke Energy Florida rank dead last year after year in residential customer satisfaction in J.D. Power surveys of big utilities?

Answer: Because nobody pushes Duke to be better at its own business in Florida.

When was the last time Duke expressed public regret — much less apologized — for such a sorry level of service?

That's why Wednesday's mea culpa is at once a sign of hope and sign of caution.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

Trigaux column: From Duke, the rare apology 08/27/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 8:00pm]

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