Thursday, February 22, 2018
Business

Trigaux: Who is Duke Energy Florida and what have they done with that arrogant utility?

Who's slipped Kool-Aid to Duke Energy's leaders? Please keep it coming.

On Tuesday, Duke Energy Florida president Harry Sideris came by the Tampa Bay Times and dropped a small bombshell. Or two.

First, he said Duke's Florida ratepayers will no longer have to pay for any more costs remaining on the never-built Levy County nuclear power plant project.

An absurd state law passed in 2006 let Duke charge customers for such costs, in effect eliminating the financial risk of taking on big nuclear projects. Duke's relentlessly raised rates to cover $800 million spent on a Levy nuke plant that was never built.

These rate hikes stuck in the craw of Duke customers.

No more, said Sideris. He unveiled a settlement months in the making with state regulators, environmental groups and organizations representing Florida retailers and industrial firms.

RELATED COVERAGE: Duke Energy strikes deal to lower customer bills, boost solar.

"Customers will no longer pay anything further for Levy," the utility executive explained. That amounts to $150 million in remaining Levy expenses that Duke was ready start to charging for. Instead, Duke will absorb that expense. "So that means shareholders will bear that cost," Sideris acknowledged.

Why now? "We wanted to put this in the rear-view mirror," he said.

I must be dreaming. Duke Energy is a giant monopoly, historically arrogant and accustomed to getting its way. Duke often seems to have more lawyers and lobbyists pushing people around than employees actually running power plants.

Now it's waving an olive branch. No more gouging customers for foolish nuclear projects. Even the Levy County land designated for new nukes is already being rezoned for other uses.

Second, Sideris said Duke in Florida will embrace solar power. The company wants to build 700 megawatts worth of large solar farms in the state over the next four to five years. The goal is to raise Duke's generation of electricity from solar in Florida to about 8 percent of its 8,500-megawatt capacity. Duke currently relies heavily on natural gas to generate close to 70 percent of its electricity in this state. Coal makes up another 25 percent. That leaves a small bit for solar that will now to grow more quickly into the early 2020s.

Not so long ago Duke pooh-poohed solar as too expensive, inefficient and unreliable on cloudy days. Now Duke finds solar is cost competitive.

Duke also wants to embrace smart grids and smart meters aimed at making electricity more manageable by both the utility and its customers.

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

Sideris is big on Duke becoming more like Amazon and Verizon, companies that empower customers digitally via their smart phones. Sideris envisions opportunities ahead for Duke customers to know in real-time how much power they are using and manage their energy needs (and bills) accordingly.

Duke plans $6 billion in investments in the state over the next four years, including the solar farm expansion and smart grid upgrades. Sideris says electric rates will rise in more measured fashion, between 1 to 3 percent, close to the rate of inflation in the coming years — without the big increases that ratepayers find so vexing.

So, does a new settlement reached by Duke Energy Florida mean all is suddenly a delight in the world of a monopoly electricity provider and its 1.8 million Florida customers? Not a chance. But Sideris offered a rare glimpse of a Duke Energy that's trying to look ahead. Not behind.

If Kool-Aid helps, let's have another round.

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

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