Sunday, January 21, 2018
Editorials

Stop the fleecing of Progress Energy customers

Businesses that make big mistakes and force their customers to pay for them can expect a smarter competitor to take away their customers. But Progress Energy is a regulated monopoly, and it announced last week it expects customers to pay to expand a broken nuclear plant and to continue to finance a proposed nuclear plant that may never be built. Yet Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Legislature and the Public Service Commission have failed to lift a finger to stop this fleecing of the ratepayers.

Progress Energy isn't just maintaining its increasingly expensive bet on nuclear energy. It expects its Florida customers to double down as well. The company plans to ask the Florida Public Service Commission in August to raise rates on consumers to cover $49 million in up-front costs for a planned expansion of capacity at the troubled Crystal River nuclear plant under a 2006 law that allows for so-called advanced nuclear cost recovery. Never mind that there's still significant doubt about whether the plant will ever be repaired and returned to service. It's been shut down since 2009 after Progress Energy bungled a first-of-its-kind, do-it-yourself repair job.

The other bad news for consumers: The cost of the proposed new Levy County nuclear plant — which still has not received federal approval — could reach as high as $24 billion, up from the last estimate of $22.4 billion. What's more, the plant won't be complete until 2024, eight years later than originally proposed. Progress Energy Florida customers are already on the hook for $1.1 billion in up-front costs that include an estimated $150 million in revenue for the company. That price tag can only be expected to grow unless Tallahassee changes the law.

Once upon a time, this policy of having customers help finance nuclear power was more defensible. Natural gas prices were expected to steadily increase, and demand for power in a hot housing market seemed endless. And there was a case that nuclear power — costly to build but less expensive to operate — made financial sense. But new technology makes it easier and cheaper to extract natural gas, and the demand for power dropped along with the housing market.

When the law passed, no one anticipated the debacle at Crystal River and the continued delays in Levy. At the very least, customers shouldn't have to pay a cent for expansion capacity at Crystal River until there's far more clarity on whether repairs are even possible.

Most appalling, however, is the silence on this issue in the Capitol. Legislative leaders weren't even willing during the legislative session to entertain a request from Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, to hold a public hearing on the advanced nuclear cost recovery law. Could that have something to do with the nearly $800,000 the company and its related political action committees have donated this election cycle, including $100,000 for the governor's Let's Get to Work committee just last month?

Every legislative seat in Tallahassee is up for election this fall due to redistricting. The incoming House speaker is Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, whose district is served by Progress Energy. Progress Energy customers should send the governor and the legislative candidates a message: It's time to change the law and stop Progress Energy from charging customers for projects that may never produce a kilowatt of power.

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