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Trigaux: If you're not mad at Duke Energy, you're not paying attention

A pitchfork is hoisted toward Duke Florida Energy’s headquarters in St. Petersburg during an October rally led by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy that drew 150 people upset about the utility’s treatment of customers.
Published Nov. 28, 2014

If Duke Energy keeps up its remarkably self-serving agenda, the company should update its corporate slogan. Here's a suggestion.

Duke Energy: Me First, Customers Last.

In 2014, Duke's delivered little but calamity, especially in Florida, where customers serve as company punching bags. But even in its home state of North Carolina, Duke fumbled. Now it's busy downplaying a horrible environmental spill of its own making. A toxic sludge of 39,000 tons of arsenic-laced coal ash and 27,000 gallons of contaminated water now coats nearly 70 miles of the once-scenic Dan River.

In Florida, Duke's relentless series of self-serving decisions imposed on its 1.7 million rate-paying customers surely belongs in the Guinness Book of Business Bullying.

Let's go no deeper in this column without a Bronx cheer for the rubber-stamping Florida Public Service Commission. The PSC's willingness to serve as Duke's lackey, doormat and minion — three roles at one price! — has not only devastated Floridians who must buy their high-priced electricity from this monopoly utility. In addition, PSC policy decisions made at the behest of Duke and other big power companies in this state routinely undermined the struggling alternative energy industry and state energy conservation efforts.

"It's hard to believe that in this age of technological innovation, Florida's utilities are acting like it's the 1950s," David Guest, managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice, a national nonprofit law firm, wrote this month in a commentary appearing in multiple newspapers across the state.

Guest is on the right track but wrong on the timing. It's not the 1950s. It's the 1250s, and Floridians are little more than serfs.

Credit Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the organizer of last month's "Pitchfork Protest" held outside Duke Energy Florida's headquarters in St. Petersburg for what deserves to be the rallying cry of 2014.

"If you're not mad, you're not paying attention."

For those who napped as power companies picked their wallet this year — and will do so again in the coming years — rise and shine:

• Several days ago, the PSC voted — in keeping with its subservient ways — to endorse proposals by Duke and other Florida utilities to gut this state's energy-efficiency goals by more than 90 percent. The PSC's own staff issued a 100-plus-page analysis supporting utility arguments that energy-efficiency programs are too costly because it's cheaper for power companies to produce a kilowatt of electricity than to save one. That nonsense, lip-synched on Tuesday by a majority of the commissioners, might work if we were all back in first grade. It's funny how regulators in most other states can grasp so basic a concept as encouraging efficient energy use.

And while Duke and other big utilities in Florida try to discourage increasingly cost-competitive alternative energy, more businesses are not listening. Large area organizations like Great Bay Distributors and Lockheed Martin in Pinellas County, Tampa International Airport and two VA medical centers already are pursuing major solar panel projects in anticipation of renewables becoming more mainstream.

• Duke Energy Florida claims an energy expertise, being part of the biggest power company in the country. Yet the utility charges startlingly higher electricity rates than either neighboring Tampa Electric or Florida Power & Light. So much for being competitive. And on customer service, Duke in Florida has sat at the bottom of the barrel for several years running, J.D. Power surveys say.

High rates. Poor service. Perfect storm.

• Reports of sloppy billing by Duke Energy are on the rise, with customers complaining of unexplained spikes in monthly electricity bills, getting charged expensive bills that turned out to belong to a neighbor's meter, and extra charges on a monthly bill for lighting that happened to belong to a neighbor. Gulfport customer Ralph Bassett complained when his bill soared one month. Duke told him it was because he ran his air conditioner more during a hot spell. He does not have air conditioning. The matter remains unresolved.

• Businesses aren't unscathed either. Some are charged higher rates than they should be by Duke. That's because Duke does not automatically allot the lowest-price rate to such customers — a practice other utilities typically do without asking. That creates extra revenue for Duke by charging more and leaves the business suffering unless — somehow — it learns it could have been operating at a lower electricity rate. Duke's response? A business has to request, in effect, a best rate. Says Duke: "Automatically switching customers to what appears to be the lowest rate without their input and consent assumes that we know everything about how and when they use energy and any future plans they may have for their businesses." This gives new meaning to the phrase "Don't ask, don't tell."

• Earlier Duke screwups might seem like old news, like the breaking and premature closing of the Crystal River nuclear plant in Citrus County. Or the long-proposed Levy County nuclear power plant that charged ratepayers vast sums in advance to help cover a wildly escalating project that Duke ultimately shelved. Together, these fruitless projects left customers saddled with billions in costs that they will have to pay via higher rates for years to come.

• The final insult? The loss of those nuclear plants that will now never produce any power must be made up for with —you guessed it — a new natural gas plant. Duke will build one in Citrus County for $1.5 billion, charging customers for its cost.

Experts say the bulk of that extra electricity from a new plant could have been avoided by the energy-efficiency programs that Duke and its power pals are so eager to end.

"It borders on criminal behavior for utility regulators to approve a big new gas plant while Duke is proposing to kill conservation programs," Glickman told the Tampa Bay Times last month.

If you enjoyed the 2014 roundup on Duke Energy, brace yourself for 2015.

If you're not mad, you're not paying attention.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

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