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  1. Opinion

Utilities: Pulling the plug on passivity

[ CAMERON COTTRILL | Times ]
[ CAMERON COTTRILL | Times ]
Published Feb. 27, 2015

LAST FALL, CRITICS of Duke Energy Florida rallied protesters at a demonstration by shouting, "If you're not mad, you're not paying attention."

Tampa Bay area lawmakers say they have now taken note of the utility's troubles and practices in recent years, and they are more than angry.

So angry that they have drafted a series of measures aimed at Duke and the state Public Service Commission, which regulates the utility, in hopes of reining in both and offering consumers some protection. "I'm mad as heck and I'm not going to take it anymore," Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said in September as he began contemplating legislation.

Some of the measures that have emerged aren't new, but they highlight the frustration with the utility after it:

• Left customers with $3.2 billion in costs for two failed nuclear plants that won't deliver a single kilowatt of electricity;

• Bumped up customer bills by adding days to the billing cycles while adjusting meter routes;

• Demanded deposits from some businesses that were more than quadruple their average monthly electric bills, whether the company had been late on a payment or not;

• Charged some businesses, including churches, a higher rate than necessary.

"It's probably hard to understand the number of emails, the public input that we get on this," Latvala recently told members of the Senate Commerce, Energy and Public Utilities Committee. He said while some utilities might be improving their service and practices, Duke Energy "has gotten worse. That's why I decided it's time to act." A bill Latvala drafted would prohibit utilities from charging customers higher rates for higher usage as a result of extended billing periods, and would limit how much utilities can charge their customers for deposits.

The bill also would require the PSC to hold public hearings on rates in utilities' service areas and to stream them live on the Internet, require PSC members to receive ethics training, and require anyone who lobbies the PSC nominating council to register. The council sends PSC nominees to the governor. Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, wants to limit the number of days a utility can extend an electric bill.

Both of those bills already have received support from the commerce and energy committee.

Sterling Ivey, a Duke spokesman, said Duke is reviewing the proposals before the Legislature.

"We look forward to working together with state lawmakers, like Sen. Latvala and industry experts to achieve energy policies that are fair and beneficial to all Floridians," Ivey said.

Lawmakers are proposing a series of measures in an attempt to reach that fair and beneficial result. A bill by Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, and Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, would repeal and refund the so-called nuclear advance fee, which led to much of the billions in costs Duke customers are paying. Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, filed a separate bill to repeal the fee but without requiring any refund.

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Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said his concern is about some future actions Duke might consider by taking a page from Florida Power & Light's script. FP&L won approval from the PSC to use customer money to explore and invest in an Oklahoma fracking operation that the utility says will save customers money in the long run because it will stabilize fuel rates. Because Duke has been watching FP&L's fracking efforts, which Dudley opposes, he has filed legislation to prevent the practice. He says the utilities' investors, not customers, should fund such projects.

The growing frustration with the investor-owned utilities has prompted an unusual coalition of grass-roots liberals and conservatives to draft a petition for the 2016 ballot to remove barriers that hinder homeowners and businesses from installing solar panels on their rooftops.

That petition drive has prompted Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, to propose a similar measure in the Legislature. Brandes also wants to eliminate some taxes that solar producers say have made it difficult to make a profit.

Other lawmakers at least in part, like Latvala, blame the PSC for allowing what they see as anticonsumer actions. As such, Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, also are proposing reforms of the PSC by requiring such changes as term limits and residency in one of five districts that the Legislature would create.

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