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Trigaux: Can Duke Energy Florida's new chief grow a business when customers use less power?

Duke Energy Florida president Harry Sideris, 46, answers questions from the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Wednesday. Sideris has some tough tasks ahead in Florida: improving customer service, building more solar power plants and diversifying Duke’s fuel sources, to name a few.
Published May 22, 2017

Let's hope Harry Sideris has a bit of Harry Houdini in him.

After some rough years, it may take a bit of a magician to reimagine Duke Energy Florida's public image and growth strategy.

Such is the tough task ahead. A self-described "mountain boy" from Asheville, N.C. (before it became hip, he says), Sideris succeeded Alex Glenn earlier this year as Duke Energy Florida's state president based in St. Petersburg.

After all, Duke still must make amends for the extra costs of prematurely shuttering its only nuclear power plant in Florida. Separately, Duke is about to start charging Florida ratepayers more in January to pay for expenses for work done on a nuclear power plant planned — but never delivered — in Levy County. That plant became too expensive to finish, yet Duke holds on to a federal license to reboot the Levy site if nuclear regains credibility.

Then there is the exasperating status of Duke Energy Florida's business and residential customer service ratings — worst in the state among big power companies — catalogued year after year in J.D. Power surveys. And then there are Duke Energy Florida's electricity rates, which are on the rise again. They're higher than those at neighboring Tampa Electric and even pricier than those charged by Florida Power & Light.

Given time, Sideris predicts the electricity rates of big utilities will start to get much closer to one another.

After 21 years and six moves at Duke that include a previous stint in St. Petersburg running the Bartow power plant on St. Petersburg's Weedon Island, Sideris already knows the score in Florida. In his first sitdown with the Tampa Bay Times, the state president, 46, outlined four priorities across a broad agenda. The highlights of Sideris wants:

• To "transform" customer service, mainly by giving customers better technology and more timely information about their electricity options and prices for power. Most of that promised upgrade will arrive in the next three to four years (yes, years) as Duke installs more smart meters across its Florida service territory. Once installed, the meters will help customers better track electricity usage, enable them to tap electricity at off-peak hours and avoid shocker monthly bills by knowing what they are spending day by day. Just over one quarter of Duke customers in Florida have smart meters at the moment. Smart grids, too, will help reroute power around downed lines just as GPS helps drivers avoid traffic jams.

• To build more large-scale solar power plants in rural parts of Duke's service territory where land is cheaper and there's less local resistance to acres upon acres of solar panels. So far, Duke's built solar panel facilities near Perry in Taylor County, producing 5 megawatts, and also one in Osceola that's the size of 13 football fields and produces 4 megawatts. A third facility in Suwannee County is under way.

Look for 750 more megawatts of solar in Florida over the next decade, Sideris says. It sounds ambitious, but all of these plants combined mean solar still will account for less than 10 percent of the utility's 8,500-megawatt output. Also, don't look for a big Duke endorsement of rooftop solar, which the company says is less cost effective. Even so, the company works with 200-250 Florida customers per month who want rooftop systems. "We still feel the pricing and economics of that don't make sense yet," he says.

• To improve customer safety with better awareness of the dangers of down power lines.

• To engage Duke employees more in having a say in what the company is doing and finding better ways to do it. He also wants to reach out to the communities where Duke operates in the state, which range from Tampa Bay to Orlando and north along the west coast to Tallahassee. Sideris says education is a personal passion and a sector Duke claims to be particularly committed to.

So, four priorities — "easier said than done," Sideris says. "Nothing earth-shattering."

On a more personal side, Sideris seems wowed by the renaissance in downtown St. Petersburg since he was here 11 years ago. That was when he met Catinna, a teacher in St. Petersburg, who would become his wife. Sideris says she's happy to back here. The couple's kids grew up in North Carolina and were more dubious about relocating to Florida. Sideris says a little "bribing" with season tickets to Universal Studios in Orlando and Harry Potter attractions there are going a long way in smoothing their concerns.

Keeping lots of constituencies happy? That's one magical talent that just might serve Sideris well in his new gig.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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