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As Progress Energy's Vinny Dolan defends the indefensible, Floridians stuck with ever higher bills

Published Jun. 21, 2012

Progress Energy Florida already ranks at the very bottom of customer satisfaction when compared to its peers. The J.D Power rankings above are for business customers but Progress Energy Florida fares no better with its residential customers. It's last and well below average. What happens when electricity rates really start to skyrocket to pay for the absurdly priced Levy County nuclear power plant currently pegged at $24 billion? What is the credibility of a utility that surveys show is the worst of the worst in satisfying its customers?

Wake up and good morning. Progress Energy Florida CEO Vinny Dolan must walk a very fine line in the Sunshine State.

1. Dolan's the state head of North Carolina-based Progress Energy, Tampa Bay's dominant provider of electricity that already sells the commodity at an astonishingly high price to Florida households and businesses forced to buy power in the utility's west central Florida service territory monopoly. Head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to Florida Power & Light's territory and electricity costs more than 20 percent less. What's wrong with that picture?

vincentdolanscottkeeler.jpg2. Dolan's currently the 2012 chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the regional 8-county economic development organization that represents regional business interests here. While it is historically accepted that the head of the area power company should take his turn to chair a pro-growth group like TBP, isn't it ironic that one of the biggest impediments to growing this area's economy is the absurd premium the area must pay for electricity? There's a Chinese Wall, alas, in the business community that lets Dolan take a leadership role in the very business community that's being gouged by its provider of electricity.

3. Dolan's the front man in Florida to defend Progress Energy's botched Do-It-Yourself repair of Crystal River 3, the company's one and only nuclear power plant in Florida. That plant has been shuttered since the fall of 2009 -- that will be three years this September -- which means Progress Energy has had to replace the electricity generated by what was a low-cost provider of power by purchasing power from others or generating more electricity from its other plants. It remains unclear if and when Progress will even try to fix the Crystal River plant, how much it will cost, who exactly will pay for it (brace yourselves), and how much longer the nuke plant will remain closed for any repairs to occur. There's not much upside for Dolan to offer on that debacle.

4. Dolan's the voice of Progress Energy here to explain how a perverted 2006 state law was passed (with heavy Progress Energy lobbying) that not only allows Progress Energy to bill Florida customers in advance for a proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County (north of Citrus County), but also allows the delayed Levy plant to remain a viable project when its price tag is soaring past $24 billion. Many critics say that's like making a decision to serve mega-bucks caviar to the hungry when plenty of alternative food is available for far, far less. Worse, the 2006 law now only lets the utility charge hundreds of millions of dollars in higher rates now to customers for the Levy plant (now more than tend years away from its alleged start-up) but also lets Progress Energy keep all of that money even if it decide not to build the plant. How does Dolan defend a project and a twisted, forced financing law that would make even socialist planners drool with envy? Dolan says we are too dependent on natural gas, now dirt cheap, as the state's dominant source of fuel used to generate electricity. Better diversity of fuel sources is smarter should gas prices rise, Dolan says. But nowhere does he justify that the nuclear price tag on the Levy plant -- $24 billion and growing -- is not only off the charts but not remotely price competitive with the few other nuclear power projects in this country that are further along -- namely those in Georgia and South Carolina. If Progress Energy had its way in Florida, given the completely subservient Florida Public Service Commission that supposedly acts in the interest of Floridians, it could build a nuke plant for $30 billion or even $50 billion and still ramrod it through our malleable Tallahassee government.

5. Finally, Dolan's the voice in Florida of a Progress Energy that is on the verge of formally being acquired by bigger Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C., to create the biggest power company in the United States. If you thought Progress Energy has lost its bearings in pushing nuclear power at any price in this state, don't look to Duke for help. It is no less fixated on a nuclear power dominated future while its longtime CEO, James Rogers, has said loudly and often that electricity rates are only going higher in the coming years. How silly is it for Florida Gov. Rick Scott to be hyping Florida as the low cost state for business when smart companies will see electricity prices, at least in Progress Energy's territory of the state, are not competitive now and only going higher?

I mention these long winded points because the message from Dolan and Progress Energy on its too-high rates, its willingness to embrace the law that let's the company charge customers in advance for what investors themselves should be taking on as risk for return, is little more than clever propaganda. Dolan was interviewed this month by the Orlando Sentinel. He's asked reasonable questions but rarely challenged in his answers. It's an eye opener into a parallel universe. Read it and weep here.

Dolan photo: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times