Friday, May 25, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: In Florida, utilities call the shots

This week's Florida Public Service Commission hearings on energy efficiency reflect everything wrong with this state's energy policy. Instead of raising modest energy savings goals, the PSC is considering cutting them. Instead of listening to the public, the PSC is hearing from electric utilities eager to slash the efficiency goals, build more power plants at customers' expense and make more money. The utilities will keep getting their way until a new governor comes along who will stand up to their lobbyists, ignore their campaign cash and break their stranglehold on Tallahassee.

Utilities such as Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. have long dominated the PSC, where there is a history of commissioners and top staffers siding with the industry and magically winding up with lucrative utility jobs later. One clean-energy group recently counted one utility lobbyist for every two legislators and five former PSC commissioners working for FPL. On the rare occasion when more independent minds were on the PSC and voted against a rate increase, industry lobbyists pressured the Senate not to confirm them and forced them out. The game in the state capital is rigged, and one of the results is that Duke Energy customers in the Tampa Bay area pay some of the highest electric rates in the Southeast.

Yet Duke, FPL and TECO are arguing this week that energy efficiency programs cost too much. They claim it makes more sense to build more electric plants than to conserve power. More progressive states are focusing on conservation, and the U.S. Energy Department estimates that new natural gas generation costs twice as much as energy efficiency programs. It's no surprise that the utilities reject that math and claim they would be saving consumers money by reducing conservation measures and increasing demand for power.

In Florida, to borrow an old state slogan, the rules are different. This is a state where the Legislature allowed utilities to bill customers in advance for nuclear plant construction that would never generate a kilowatt of power. Now Duke Energy customers will pay more than $3 billion for a botched repair at the Crystal River nuclear plant that is shut down and for a new Levy County nuclear plant that will not be built. The PSC signed off on a one-sided settlement, and the Legislature rejected calls to repeal the 2006 law and made only minor adjustments.

This is a state where the electric utilities have done everything they can to thwart the development of solar power. They argue renewable energy costs too much and oppose leveling the playing field for independent companies that would generate solar power and sell it back to the power companies. Even without a smart state energy policy, solar costs are declining and there are success stories such as Great Bay Distributors, which is building the largest private solar power system in the state on the roof of its new St. Petersburg headquarters.

And this is a state where the PSC is listening only to utility companies and is likely to reduce energy conservation goals. All five PSC members were appointed or reappointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist and reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott. Crist, the former Republican turned Democrat, is likely to face the Republican incumbent in November. Two of Crist's consumer-oriented appointees to the PSC were not confirmed by the Senate, and as governor he sought delays in large rate increases. Scott's political committee has received more than $550,000 from FPL, and Crist's has not received a nickel from them.

Which candidate for governor is more likely to stand up to the electric utilities and push for a smarter energy policy that emphasizes conservation and renewable energy over building more power plants?

This editorial has been adjusted to reflect the following clarification: While the public cannot participate in Florida Public Service Commission hearings on energy efficiency, environmental groups and other parties to the docket can testify and provide evidence. An editorial published Wednesday was unclear on that point.

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