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Duke Energy should refund its settlement profit in the form of energy efficiency and solar power grants.

Duke Energy should refund its settlement profit in the form of energy efficiency and solar power grants.

Duke Energy's performance on nuclear cost recovery has justifiably enraged its ratepayers. But what if there were a way to end this saga that would be a win-win for the company, its customers and Florida's energy future?

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There is. Duke Energy should refund the profit it will make in last week's settlement in the form of energy efficiency and solar grants.

Duke Energy took money from ratepayers and then broke the Crystal River facility. Duke also took funds from ratepayers to build the Levy County nuclear plant and then scuttled it. Under a settlement approved by the Public Service Commission last week, customers will end up with the bulk of the bill for these projects that never produced any electricity.

With approval of this settlement, Duke will not have to defend itself for wasting nearly $3 billion of its customers' money — or the $250 million in profit it made on the two failed nuclear projects.

Adding insult to injury, Duke has said that it will need new natural gas plants to replace the loss of the Crystal River nuclear plant and the Levy County nuclear project. Florida's utilities currently send billions of dollars out-of-state each year to purchase natural gas. Who ultimately pays for that? You guessed it: us.

Duke says the deal gives customers certainty that all of the costs will be accounted for and resolved. If you ask the average ratepayer if this is equitable, they'll likely respond with something colorful, especially about the $250 million in profit that Duke will get to keep.

At the end of the day, the settlement is not fair. The clamor from the public shows just how deeply that fact resonates.

Florida has some of the world's highest solar power potential, yet solar represents less than 1 percent of Duke Energy's electricity production here. That's shameful and inadequate. It also represents an opportunity.

Florida also has significant potential to save money and meet energy demand through large-scale energy savings programs. That too, is a significant opportunity and low-hanging fruit.

What if Duke Energy were to return that $250 million profit in the form of energy efficiency and solar grants and incentives? This would create jobs and create savings for ratepayers.

It would also enable earlier retirement of old and outdated coal-burning units like those currently operating next to the broken nuclear facility at Crystal River. The coal-fired plant at Crystal River is Florida's top source of toxic mercury pollution that threatens pregnant women and young children. It also pumps smog-forming pollution into air, triggering asthma attacks in kids playing outdoors. In a state like Florida, our outdoor heritage is a key part of our economy and our lifestyles. Telling kids to stay indoors so Duke can continue to run a coal plant past its prime makes no sense.

Instead of sticking to outdated, dirty and expensive coal, Duke could be installing job-creating and money-saving clean energy solutions in its place. Clean, renewable energy — including solar and energy efficiency — presents an opportunity for America to become more energy independent and economically secure.

Under this scenario, we could restore some semblance of fairness to the ratepayer, create jobs and energy savings, and fundamentally shift Florida's energy future toward a cleaner, more sustainable path.

Now that would be in everyone's best interest.

Julia Hathaway is Florida representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: 10/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 4:03pm]
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