1. Opinion

Editorial: Duke Energy gives its customers a break

After years of forcing its customers to pay for its nuclear energy mistakes, Duke Energy Florida is doing the right thing and sparing its ratepayers from paying the final $150 million cost for the never-built Levy County nuclear plant. The deal means that Duke and its shareholders — not the ratepayers who have little choice but to buy its electricity — will cover the costs to close the books on this bad chapter. The change of heart, which should have occurred years ago, could help Duke repair its corporate image and become more customer-friendly. It's about time.

Duke says the savings will amount to about $2.50 a month for the average residential customer. That's good news, although Duke, serving 1.8 million Floridians, will still charge some of the highest rates in the state.

The settlement is part of a plan to move past nuclear and to emphasize solar energy. Although roughly 75 percent of Duke's electricity is generated by natural gas, it will add more than 700 megawatts of solar generating capacity in the next few years. As a consequence, the proportion of electricity that comes from coal-fired plants will continue drop to 20 percent or so.

Duke also emphasizes that it is segueing into a higher-tech future with smart meters that will automatically alert the power company when a customer has lost power. Those meters also will allow consumers to easily monitor their energy usage and adjust their behavior in much the same way that a smartphone can text an alert when a user is approaching a data cap.

While Tuesday's announcement is good news, don't forget that ratepayers have already spent $800 million on a nuclear plant that will never be built. Blame both Duke and a lapdog Florida Legislature for that waste of money. More than a decade ago, enabling legislators passed the nuclear cost-recovery act that allowed Duke and other power companies to collect money in advance for nuclear plants becoming operational or, in this case, for one that was never built. The fallout from this folly made Duke radioactive to many of its customers, a hard lesson it has now learned.

Even so, remember Duke customers still will be wrapping up final costs for the broken and closed Crystal River nuclear plant for the next two years. Now the utility is looking to an energy future that doesn't include nuclear but increasingly relies on renewables such as solar to provide clean energy to its Florida customers. More important, it should now recognize that those who reap the rewards — shareholders and others — should also be the ones to shoulder the risk. Duke can become a better corporate citizen by no longer expecting its customers to pay for its mistakes. "We feel like the cost of Levy being written off is a small price to pay for moving forward," said Duke's Florida president, Harry Sideris. Well said.