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State okays broader energy efficiency options for low-income Floridians

State regulators approved utilities’ plans Tuesday for proposed energy conservation programs.

State regulators approved utilities’ plans Tuesday for proposed energy conservation programs, several of which would help low-income customers save money on their power bills.

The Florida Public Service Commission’s unanimous vote went against its staff’s recommendation to reject the proposals for not being cost-efficient enough.

“It’s even more pressing now today than ever before for utilities to be promoting conservation and offering energy efficiency programs for its customers,” said Julie Brown, a commissioner from Tampa.

The Tuesday hearing is the second step in a process Florida’s investor-owned utilities must go through every five years. Each utility — including Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co. and Florida Power & Light — submits goals for how it will save a particular amount of energy instead of producing it and charging customers, then tells regulators how they will accomplish that. The goals are accomplished through programs that encourage customers to save power, such as rebate programs for energy-efficient appliances.

Last November, regulators took the rare step of rebuffing the public utilities’ proposed goals after all but Tampa Electric asked to lower the amount of energy they would need to save to what environmental advocates said was effectively “zero.”

“It just doesn’t make sense to me to have zero goals,” Brown said at the time. “It’s like running a marathon at 0 mph. You’re never going to make it to the finish line.”

Related: Florida regulators reject utilities’ proposed energy efficiency goals

Instead, the commission said, the utilities would continue with those approved in 2014, which were widely criticized at the time for being a 90-percent slash of prior goals.

The plans approved Tuesday outline how the utilities will help customers save energy, particularly low-income customers. Four of the five public utilities’ plans are expected to lower customers’ monthly bills slightly, while Tampa Electric’s plan increases bills by 2 cents.

Tampa Electric had the most ambitious plan concerning low-income customers. Its existing program helps qualifying ratepayers identify ways their homes could be more energy efficient, such as using LED light bulbs, and gives them options to fix them. New this round is a component that would educate customers about renewable energy systems and electrical vehicle charging. These efforts would reach 6,500 eligible customers per year, expanding to about 25 percent of eligible low-income customers by the fifth year.

Duke Energy Florida’s low-income program assists qualifying customers in figuring out how their homes could be more energy efficient. The proposed plan would add rebates for air conditioning up to $1,600 and reach an additional 500 qualifying customers annually. Duke Energy’s efforts would span 5,000 eligible customers each year, which would hit about 5 percent of eligible participants by the program’s fifth year.

Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, was criticized by consumer advocates for its low-income program relative to the size of its customer base. Its current program helps retrofit low-income customers’ homes with products such as caulking and weather stripping. It proposed to provide incentives for measures such as air conditioning duct testing and repair. This would reach an average of 6,255 ratepayers each year, peaking at 3 percent of eligible participants in the program’s fifth year.

Environmental and consumer advocates said all of the state’s public utilities have room for improvement when it comes to helping low-income customers, but lauded Tampa Electric for its program and Duke Energy for the amount of energy customers would save under its initiatives.

The pandemic hit those in lower-income brackets the hardest, said Zelalem Adefris, vice president of policy and advocacy at Catalyst Miami. Energy efficiency programs are particularly important as Floridians across the state are home during the pandemic.

“In order to do that comfortably, you probably need to run your air conditioning,” Adefris said. “That’s unaffordable for many folks, but it’s especially ridiculous if you have cracks in the wall, in the roof, around the window that are sending that cold air right out.”

In addition to approving the utilities’ plans, commissioners directed staff to begin a rule-making process Tuesday that would attempt to streamline the bifurcated energy efficiency process. Currently, it is separated into a goal-setting portion, followed by a planning portion. Commissioners and staff agreed that the process needs revision, noting that state lawmakers haven’t expressed interest in revising the underpinning law.