1. Opinion

Editorial: Customers vs. Duke goes beyond a billing cycle

Published Sep. 9, 2014

Just because Duke Energy promised to credit customers who were charged extra due to changes in meter reading routes does not mean the issue should be dropped. The chairman of the Public Service Commission was correct to order an audit of how Duke handles the situation and a review of the policy that Duke claimed allowed it to charge ratepayers more. If that review does not clarify the policy to ensure that no utility attempts a similar fleecing, the Florida Legislature should step in and end it.

Duke reversed course on the indefensible charges two weeks ago only after public outrage quickly built, influential legislators protested and even the utility-friendly PSC demanded some answers. The utility's changes to its meter routes led it to temporarily extend the monthly billing cycles of some 267,000 customers by up to 12 days. That often triggered higher rates even if homeowners were using their usual amount of electricity, because the cost per 100 kilowatt hours goes up after customers hit 1,000 kilowatt hours. The result: Some customers' bills were $100 or more higher because of the extended days and higher rates.

PSC chairman Art Graham wisely instructed the PSC staff last week to monitor Duke's crediting of the bills to ensure no one is shortchanged. Some Duke customers initially complained that Duke's credits did not cover their costs for this fiasco. The larger question is why Duke and even the public counsel, who represents ratepayers before the PSC, concluded the commission's rules allowed Duke to charge customers higher rates even though they were using no more electricity than usual. If that is the correct interpretation of the rule, then it needs to go.

To their credit, lawmakers such as Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, are on top of the billing issue. They are among the lawmakers who would file legislation to correct this fundamental unfairness if it comes to that.

While the Duke billing issue caught fire and finally moved even the PSC to ask for an explanation, the money at stake is small compared to the $3 billion the utility is charging ratepayers for nuclear plants that are broken or will never be built. Blame Florida lawmakers who voted for legislation in 2006 that allows utilities to bill customers in advance for nuclear plant construction projects, regardless of whether they ever produce any power. Even after Duke gave up on the broken Crystal River nuclear plant and abandoned plans to build a nuclear plant in Levy County, the Legislature made only minor changes last year to the 2006 law.

Voters should be asking legislative candidates whether they continue to support the nuclear cost recovery law or whether they would vote to repeal it — and how much they have received in political contributions this election cycle from the electric utilities. It's one thing to stand up for consumers when their electric bills are unfair and demand refunds. It's another to stand up to Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light when billions are at stake.