In a rare rebuke to Florida’s major utilities, state regulators rejected plans on Tuesday that would have let them all but eliminate programs that help their customers save energy.
They later sided with utilities, setting the stage for a process that would allow the industry to charge its customers for hardening the grid from storms by spending as much as $50 billion burying power lines.
Florida Public Service Commission member Julie Brown, a Tampa lawyer, urged her colleagues to maintain existing energy efficiency goals by continuing to offer savings programs for customers. The vote was 4 to 1.
The proposal by the utilities was "a drastic reduction in our state in conservation efforts, and I frankly do not believe it’s what the customers want,’’ Brown said. “I don’t believe it’s in the public interest.”
Florida’s state’s five investor-owned utilities, which include Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co., are required to submit goals every five years outlining how much energy they expect to save through programs that push for customers to reduce their power consumption and make energy-efficient upgrades to homes and businesses.
Programs include such things as rebates for LED light bulbs and more energy-efficient appliances.
Earlier this year, utilities submitted what environmental advocates called “zero” goals for the next five years. Duke Energy asked to drop its target for reducing energy consumption though conservation by 15 percent to save just 166 gigawatt hours. Florida Power & Light, which serves much of South Florida, requested a 99 percent decrease to 1.03 gigawatt hours. Tampa Electric was the only utility to propose increasing its goal by 14 percent, to 165 gigawatt hours.
Utilities argue that energy efficiency is already met through customer-led initiatives and modern building standards, and that it wouldn’t be cost effective for utilities to continue aiding customers’ conservation efforts.
Brown disagreed Tuesday.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me to have zero goals,” she said. “It’s like running a marathon at zero miles per hour. You’re never going to make it to the finish line.”
The commission rejected its staff recommendation and agreed to push the Legislature to modernize the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act, which outlines the utilities’ requirements for energy efficiency goal setting.
While reverting to the 2014 goals might seem like a boost, those figures are what’s left after a 90-percent slashing of earlier goals. The decision by the Public Service Commission at the time, which Brown was a part of, was seen as a “gutting” the goals.
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Tuesday’s vote was a rare rejection of a utility request. The commission has long been accused of being beholden to the wealthy companies it regulates, and often rules in the industry’s favor.
The Public Service Commission faced significant scrutiny, as rallying efforts by environmental advocates resulted in 2,000 letters being sent to regulators criticizing the plan, according to the commission. “Many” of the letters, spokeswoman Cindy Muir said, were either duplicate letters or sent by the same individuals. Letter writers included utility customers and representatives from several cities and municipalities.
One of the primary concerns of the three commissioners who did not support the utilities’ proposed goals was that the method that the state uses to determine whether a program is cost effective is outdated and not used by many other states.
Duke Energy released a statement afterward saying it would work with regulators going forward on conservation targets.
“Duke Energy is looking forward to working with the Florida Public Service Commission on the energy conservation goals," the statement read. "The company will be evaluating today’s decision and how it impacts the current programs. Ultimately Duke Energy’s goal is to provide the best programs for our customers.”
Environmental groups considered the decision a win.
“It was a victory today to have the commissioners reject ... the zero or near-zero goals,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “It was a testament to the public outcry and pressure that was felt with a number of letters to the (commission) to set meaningful goals.”
The commission’s second major vote of the day, board members approved a series of rules that will allow companies to submit storm protection plans for review and approval every three years and pass along the cost to customers on their monthly bills. The vote was unanimous.
Customers won’t know how much their bills will rise, however, until the rules are implemented and hearings are held, likely next year.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.