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Billionaire environmentalist's group stages rally at Duke Energy's Florida headquarters

Lawyer Matt Weidner addresses the Floridians for Fair Rates event outside of Duke Energy Headquarters in St. Petersburg. [Ivan Penn | Times]

Published Aug. 14, 2014

Billionaire Tom Steyer took his message of disenfranchised utility ratepayers to the streets Thursday with the launch of a new grass roots coalition to campaign against Gov. Rick Scott.

About three dozen people quietly gathered in the drizzling rain outside Duke Energy's St. Petersburg headquarters for the inaugural effort of the group Floridians for Fair Rates, an organization led by Steyer's political group NextGen Climate.

The new group also includes the Florida Consumer Action Network and Progress Florida, a nonprofit group that promotes "progressive values."

Floridians for Fair Rates is the latest of a growing number of grass roots organizations formed in recent months largely in response to frustrations with the state's utilities. Steyer is the second billionaire to support environmental group efforts in Florida after Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, backed the Sierra Club for a campaign against coal plants.

The grass roots efforts are led by Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Sierra Club and its Sunshine State Coalition and the new Fair Rates. They criticize the state Public Service Commission for allowing Duke to collect $3.2 billion from its customers for nuclear projects that will never deliver a kilowatt of electricity.

They also want Duke, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light to produce more clean energy with solar and other renewable sources. And they have called on Tallahassee to develop policies that increase access to rooftop solar for homeowners and businesses.

Last month, the efforts led to a rare appearance of more than 100 residents at a state Public Service Commission hearing in Tallahassee. The issue: utility proposals to gut energy conservation goals, even as Duke proposes to spend another $2 billion to construct natural gas plants and make improvements at existing facilities.

Steyer, a hedge fund manager and philanthropist who pushes environmental causes, began his effort last week with TV ads criticizing Scott for failing to take steps to stop Duke from collecting the billions of dollars for the botched nuclear efforts.

Scott "was in a position to do something about it and he didn't," said Melissa Baldwin, a spokeswoman for Steyer's NextGen Climate and an organizer of the Fair Rates groups for Thursday's event. "Floridians for Fair Rates is about holding Gov. Rick Scott accountable."

Baldwin said the Fair Rates group will push to educate voters about climate and energy as well as where politicians stand on those issues. Different from existing efforts by the Southern Alliance and the Sierra Club, Fair Rates will push a more political agenda with a focus on getting voters to the polls to support more environmentally friendly candidates.

"We have the ability to get political and will get political," Baldwin said. "This is about the next generation."

Duke says it does not comment on political issues.

The Republican Party of Florida has countered Steyer's efforts with Duke ads of its own. While Steyer's ad blames Scott, the Republican Party ad blames former governor and now Democratic candidate Charlie Crist.

But it was former Gov. Jeb Bush who signed the original bill allowing utilities to collect customer money in advance for nuclear projects, whether they were built or not.

St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse, one of the speakers at Thursday's protest, said Scott could have helped stop the nuclear charges that reached into the billions, but he didn't.

"While we've paid for Duke Energy's failures, Rick Scott just stood by," Nurse said. "We will let the voters know that we can't trust Rick Scott."

Contact Ivan Penn at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.

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