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  1. Opinion

Florida’s utility customers win one—for now | Editorial

The state needs to continue pressing electric companies on conservation after the PSC rejects lowering goals.

The Florida Public Service Commission has actually lived up to its name by rejecting anemic energy conservation goals proposed by the state’s major electric utilities. The existing goals are not much better, but a win is a win. The question is whether this rare victory for consumers paves the way for more ambitious change or merely gives the power companies another opportunity to flex their muscle with the Legislature.

In a surprise move, the commission on Tuesday rejected plans by the utilities that would have all but eliminated a state program designed to help customers save energy - and money. By a 4-1 vote, with Chairman Art Graham dissenting, the commission rejected its own staff recommendation and determined that the proposed efficiency goals were tantamount to abandoning the conservation effort all together. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Malena Carollo reported, it was a rare rebuke by the commission to Florida’s major utilities. Regulators decided instead to maintain the current modest conservation targets and work with the Legislature to modernize the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act, which requires the state to set conservation goals for the utilities every five years.

The move was a refreshing break for the PSC, which has long acted more as a lapdog for industry than a watchdog for consumers. But it should not have been a tough decision. Most of the utilities proposed energy-reduction goals of “zero” or nearly zero for the coming period. Duke Energy Florida requested a 15 percent reduction from its target in 2014, the last goal-setting session. Florida Power & Light, which serves much of South Florida, requested a 99 percent decrease. Tampa Electric Co. was the only utility to propose a higher goal, which environmentalists dismissed as negligible. Four of the seven utilities subject to the law proposed goals of zero for the 2020-2029 period. Not only were the targets lower than in 2014, but the targets back then were lower than the period before. Had commissioners signed off on zero as a goal, they might as well have closed shop and resigned.

Keeping the goals at their current dismal levels at least buys time for the state to start taking conservation seriously. After all, why would the utilities change on their own when the state continues to embrace policies that make Florida a lagging outlier on conservation, with the second-worst performance in the Southeast, and where efficiencies as a portion of electricity sales are about one-fifth the national average?

The commission’s action dovetails with the call by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to overhaul the state’s approach to setting energy efficiency goals. Anything that raises the targets would help. Yet Florida’s problem is not a lack of statutory and rule-making authority. It’s the unwillingness to use it. How this improves by throwing the issue into the legislative arena, where the utilities enjoy outsized influence and freely contribute to legislative candidates, is unclear.

The commission vote was a testament to the thousands of letters from local officials, activists and residents who were rightly incensed over these meaningless goals. That same, sustained public outcry needs to be directed to legislators and other state officials in Tallahassee who now have even more reason to act on behalf of consumers.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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