TAMPA — With the city poised to bind itself legally to Tampa Electric Co. for the next 25 years, environmental advocates say now is the time for vigorous discussion about how the utility plans to provide for the city's energy future.
By state law, the franchise agreement that has been two years in the making can address only how much the utility has to pay to use city property for its power lines. That cost is then passed on to customers.
But some say talks about the agreement, if not the contract itself, should include such topics as conservation and burying power lines, something supporters say would make the city look better and make it less vulnerable to power outages during storms.
"They're asking for a 25-year monopoly, and I feel they need to demonstrate more proactive community values," City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said of the utility.
The old contract, signed in 1986, expired in 2006. The council is scheduled to review the new agreement on March 20.
Saul-Sena and others say that even if the city can't require Tampa Electric to bury power lines, take care when trimming protected trees around existing lines or provide certain types of conservation programs, the utility should offer to do those things on its own.
"We're talking about what do the people in this community want because we're paying the bills," said Ed Turanchik, a West Tampa developer who was one of six presenters at a meeting on the agreement organized by the Sierra Club last month.
Turanchik, Saul-Sena and others point to St. Petersburg-based Progress Energy Florida as a company that offers more programs to promote energy efficiency than Tampa Electric, and Florida Power & Light as a model for burying power lines.
In 2007, FP&L launched a program that pays 25 percent of the cost of burying lines for the governments it serves.
It's an expensive proposition, but the cities of Palm Beach and Jupiter Island are talking to the utility about taking advantage of the offer.
FP&L started the program after hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 left millions of Florida customers without power for more than a week.
Rick Morera, a spokesman for Tampa Electric, says the company is watching FP&L's program.
"If it ends up looking like a program that after review has some merit, we would certainly look at that," he said.
For now, though, the company buries lines at the request of developers doing construction, and the cost is built into the sales price of the new buildings.
Morera also says the company's energy efficiency program stacks up against Progress Energy's.
Both companies offer homeowners similar rebates for such things as energy-efficient heat pumps and ceiling insulation.
And each offers things the other doesn't.
Last year, Tampa Electric rolled out a voluntary tiered pricing program that makes power more expensive during peak demand hours. The idea is to encourage customers to reduce their energy consumption by making them think twice about the cost.
Progress Energy offers a rebate for green roofs that's worth up to $15,000 for commercial properties, and a $450 rebate for installation of a solar water heater.
Both companies are ranked high for their energy efficiency efforts by the federal government, but Progress Energy is frequently ranked higher.
Morera notes that because Tampa Electric is a smaller company, it's difficult to make conservation efforts cost-effective.
Although state regulators and the natural monopoly offered to power companies give Tampa officials little bargaining power with Tampa Electric, some cities have gone to the mat when discussions about franchise agreements went sour.
In 2003, voters in Winter Park approved a referendum that allowed the city to buy out Progress Energy's electrical distribution system and start its own utility. The city is now planning to bury all its power lines.
In 2005, after the city of Belleair and Progress Energy reached a standstill in franchise agreement talks, a similar referendum went to the voters, but failed.
Saul-Sena said she wouldn't suggest Tampa go that route.
"It's very complicated," she said. "If we were a smaller community, it might be more doable."
But she wants to make sure that before any agreement is approved by the council, key issues related to the city's energy future are fully explored.
"This is our opportunity," Saul-Sena said. "It may be our last opportunity for 25 years."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.