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Florida utility regulators approve Tampa Electric storm hardening stepping stone

The Florida Public Service Commission approved a settlement that lets the utility charge customers for storm hardening and makes sure they aren’t paying twice.

TALLAHASSEE — State utility regulators approved a stepping stone in Tampa Electric Co.'s effort to implement its new storm hardening plans.

At a Tuesday hearing, the Florida Public Service Commission unanimously approved a settlement enabling the utility to charge its customers for storm hardening efforts while ensuring they aren’t paying twice for a project. The settlement was between the utility, regulators and consumer advocates.

“When parties can agree to settle or simplify issues, it usually means less litigation and decreased costs,” Gary Clark, chairman of the commission, said.

The storm hardening plans stem from a law passed by the state Legislature last June requiring utilities to make their electrical infrastructure stand up better to severe weather, particularly by moving power lines underground in areas that experience frequent outages.

Related: Florida utility regulators propose rule for burying power lines

Transparency was a sticking point in recent months as the utilities, regulators and consumer advocates ironed out what exactly the utilities would need to include in their 10-year plans to accomplish this.

Under the law, utilities can charge customers for efforts to make their grids more resilient. But many of those efforts, such as tree trimming, are already included in the base rates customers are charged. Consumer advocates, such as the Office of Public Counsel, argued that utilities should outline the specific projects they would undertake within the first three years of their plan to help ensure that customers wouldn’t be hit with two charges for the same project and that the projects were actually completed.

Utilities, particularly Florida Power & Light, initially argued that this would be too cumbersome.

Tampa Electric’s settlement helps solve this issue for its customers by moving categories such as vegetation management over to the storm hardening category. Only spontaneous vegetation management, such as when lightning strikes a tree and sends it into a utility line,, would be charged in customers’ regular rates.

“The Office of Public Counsel is here today in support of the comprehensive and multifaceted agreement that is before you,” said Charles Rehwinkel, lawyer for the counsel.