There is no need for a Florida Public Service Commission that rubber stamps upgrading nuclear plants that are broken and building new ones that are too expensive. The PSC doesn't protect consumers, recognize the latest industry trends or stand up to Progress Energy Florida. The Legislature might as well abolish a commission that lets the power company rob ratepayers of hundreds of millions of dollars. Let's downsize government, save some money and cut out the middleman.
That is not an entirely serious suggestion, but it reflects the frustration of Progress Energy's 1.6 million customers who are being taken to the cleaners and have no powerful advocate in Tallahassee. It's no more outlandish than the PSC's unanimous decision this week to approve another $143 million in charges to Progress customers to continue the utility's folly with nuclear power. If the PSC exists only to condone the power company's extortion, why keep it?
The commission's decision to blindly side with Progress Energy again was as predictable as it is indefensible. Progress Energy badly botched a do-it-yourself repair job at its Crystal River nuclear plant and years later still hasn't decided how or if to fix it. Yet the PSC approved charging Progress customers in 2013 to upgrade a plant that may never generate power again. The argument that billing utility customers in advance saves money and spreads the cost over a longer period doesn't hold up when the power company has such a sorry record and hasn't decided itself how to proceed.
Even more outrageous is continuing to charge Progress Energy customers for the proposed Levy County nuclear plant. The plant's projected cost is $24 billion and rising, more than four times the original estimate. A decision on whether to build it could be two years away, and the cost is already prohibitive. But Progress Energy customers already are on the hook for more than $1.1 billion in costs tied to the project, and the utility has no incentive to pull the plug. It gets to keep $150 million of the money that customers are paying for a mirage.
The PSC refuses to acknowledge that new techniques in natural gas drilling have changed the assumptions about generating power, and natural gas prices are historically low. Utilities in other states are abandoning plans to build nuclear plants, and a Wisconsin nuclear plant is being shut down because it costs too much and no one wants to buy it. The PSC is sticking its head in the sand, and Progress Energy customers keep paying for it.
Who else will stand up for consumers? Gov. Rick Scott, who wants to offer college degrees for a discounted $10,000, appoints the PSC and hasn't made a peep about utility customers. There is the Florida Supreme Court, which is considering the fate of the 2006 law that enables Progress Energy to bill in advance for these nuclear projects. And there is the Legislature, which should repeal that law if the court doesn't overturn it. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, represents a district filled with Progress Energy customers and should lead the charge.
Floridians should not be paying the price for an electric utility's fanciful nuclear power projects and the failure of government regulators to stop them.