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  1. Opinion

Progress Energy customers still on the hook

Put away the party hats. There is little to celebrate in the deal Progress Energy has cut with consumer advocates over general rates and charges tied to its troubled nuclear program. Rates still will rise, and customers still will be on the hook for potentially huge nuclear costs. Yet Progress retains its allowable rate of return and avoids the embarrassment of further disclosures about its mishandled construction project at the damaged Crystal River nuclear plant. The Florida Public Service Commission should not rubber stamp this agreement, and the Legislature should hold hearings and demand more public answers from Progress.

Public counsel J.R. Kelly, who represents consumers before the PSC, achieved some economic stability for Progress customers in the deal. Progress would refund $288 million for power bought to replace the power lost when the Crystal River nuclear plant shut down. Monthly fees for the proposed nuclear plant in Levy County would be set at $3.45 a month over five years, less than half the projected fees for next year. And Progress would not get another general rate increase until at least 2017. Lower than expected rates, locked in for several years, are worth something to customers with stagnant incomes.

But certainty did not come cheap. Progress Energy chairman and CEO Bill Johnson said Monday it will be a couple of months before cost estimates are in on Crystal River repairs and the utility's insurer decides how much to pay, if anything. The deal announced Friday does not protect customers from being hit with a huge repair bill, and Progress' decisions on if and how to repair the plant can't be challenged if the work starts this year. If the plant is closed, customers will pay for a new natural gas plant or other power source down the road. Either way, the customers will pay plenty because the utility acted irresponsibly.

Then there is the enormous price tag for the proposed Levy County nuclear plant. Progress Energy already has collected $545 million from customers toward planning costs for a plant that has yet to be federally licensed, would not generate power until at least 2021 and may never be built. Consumers would not be paying anything if the pro-utility Legislature had not changed the law six years ago to allow utilities to bill ratepayers in advance for nuclear plant construction costs.

What Progress is really buying in this agreement is an end to the PSC investigation into its disastrous mistakes in the construction project at the Crystal River nuclear plant. There would be no PSC hearings and no ruling on whether the utility failed to act prudently and should not be allowed to recover any costs. What else don't we know about Progress' mismanagement of this project?

The PSC should ask some hard questions before approving this settlement, but the commission has a soft spot for utilities and nuclear power in particular. That leaves it to the Legislature, which is hardly pro-consumer. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has been fighting the good fight and plans to again ask for Senate hearings on the Crystal River fiasco. Tampa Bay Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, should stand with him.