Editorial: Power play picks consumers' pockets

A 2006 law allows utilities to charge for plants in advance.
A 2006 law allows utilities to charge for plants in advance.
Published Mar. 19, 2013

Florida electricity customers just can't compete against the nuclear industry and utility companies in Tallahassee. The Public Service Commission has already shown it's willing to let Progress Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light pick the pockets of consumers for nuclear plants that may never get built. And now it looks like the Legislature's appetite for correcting the situation may be waning. Consumers deserve better.

The Senate's energy committee meeting this week reflected just how badly the deck is stacked. The nuclear industry's lobbying group and utility executives dominated the meeting, praising nuclear energy and defending the 2006 law that allows utilities to charge customers in advance to expand nuclear plants and build new ones. Predictably, they don't want the law repealed. They don't even want it changed. And senators did not balance the presentations with any recognized critic of the law or of nuclear power. No wonder voters are skeptical about what goes on in the state capital, where the rhetoric rarely matches reality.

For example, an official with the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry, called the 2006 cost recovery law visionary. But the law wasn't visionary enough to anticipate a deep economic recession that reduced demand for electricity, or new technology that dramatically reduced natural gas prices. It wasn't visionary enough to protect consumers when Progress Energy's projected cost for a planned Levy County nuclear plant soared from $6 billion to $24 billion. And it certainly wasn't visionary enough to require refunds when Progress Energy decided to permanently shut down the broken Crystal River nuclear plant after spending hundreds of millions trying to repair it.

At least Florida Power & Light will bring on-line this year an expansion of an existing nuclear plant that already has cost its ratepayers $300 million — although the cost of the project is more than $1 billion higher than originally projected. Progress Energy customers have nothing to show for their cost recovery money. Both utilities also are at least 18 months away from obtaining the federal regulatory licenses needed to start construction on new nuclear plants. Progress Energy hasn't decided if it will build the Levy County plant, yet customers are already on the hook for more than $1 billion in costs and the utility will get to keep $150 million of that amount.

If the cost recovery law was marginally defensible in 2006, changing conditions make it indefensible now. Yet efforts to repeal it by lawmakers such as Reps. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, have little chance. Legislation by Sen. John Legg, R-Port Richey, would at least limit how much money utilities can keep from the advance collections and require them to refund that money if they don't build the nuclear plants. But the industry doesn't like that, either, and it will be an uphill fight judging from the Senate committee hearing.

"Help us work with you on this,'' Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, told the utility executives.

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