Scott silent as utility bills soar

Published Aug. 12, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott, a former chief executive of a for-profit hospital company, says he regularly chats with other CEOs about creating jobs and improving Florida's economy. So the governor ought to show up today at the Public Service Commission and listen to a chief executive from North Carolina whose decisions will help determine how competitive much of Tampa Bay is in attracting business. And the governor ought to do more than just nod his head in agreement.

Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, is scheduled to appear before the PSC today for the first time since Duke and Progress Energy merged to become the nation's largest electric utility. There is a lot to talk about, assuming the lap dogs at the PSC find their backbones and start asking questions. The hearing is focused on the broken Crystal River nuclear plant. It is unclear whether the plant can be fixed or is even worth fixing. But Rogers also should be asked about a proposed nuclear plant for Levy County and why ratepayers should continue to be billed in advance for a ridiculously expensive plant that may never be built.

Scott promotes the power of free markets and competition. But Progress Energy is a monopoly; homeowners and businesses can't shop around for the best price on electricity. Progress Energy isn't making Tampa Bay a more attractive place to work and live. Its rates are some of the highest among big investor-owned utilities. In fact, the rates are at least 25 percent higher than those for Florida Power & Light in South Florida. A governor determined to reduce the cost of doing business should be doing something to lower the cost of electricity, because companies are not going to relocate to a metro area where operating costs are so much higher.

Scott also touts efficiency and accountability in business and government. Progress Energy has been anything but efficient. It botched a do-it-yourself repair job at the Crystal River nuclear plant, and Rogers has acknowledged the potential repair costs are rising beyond the latest public projection of $1.3 billion. Progress' insurer hasn't agreed to cover the damages, yet not a peep of concern has been raised by the governor, the Legislature or the PSC. The utility also is proceeding with hundreds of millions of dollars in unrelated upgrades to a plant that may never produce electricity again. Scott hasn't said anything about the wisdom of soaking ratepayers for those costs, either.

Progress Energy's failure to operate efficiently is matched by Tallahassee's failure to hold the utility accountable. The Legislature has been an enabler, passing a 2006 law that allows utilities to bill customers in advance for future nuclear plants whether the plants are built or not. The PSC pretends the Crystal River debacle will work itself out and approved an agreement with Progress that does not adequately protect ratepayers. And the governor, who has no coherent energy policy, has ignored it all.

The Legislature passed the nuclear expenses law before Scott was elected, and the PSC is a regulatory authority. But those are no excuses for a governor who claims to be business-friendly but remains silent about rising costs for electricity that are bad for both businesses and consumers. Scott should go see Rogers today and demand better — or else.