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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

Lawmakers take on energy issues


ST. PETERSBURG — Two lawmakers announced a series of bills Friday aimed at bringing more renewable energy to Florida and reforming the way utilities charge customers to build power plants.

State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said he is filing legislation to repeal a 2006 rule that allows Duke Energy to charge customers for a $1 billion nuclear plant that’s not being built.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, joined Dudley at his St. Petersburg office and said she is filing a bill in Congress to require companies such as Duke to complete a detailed consumer impact study before charging customers for future energy projects.

Additionally, Dudley said he’s drafting legislation to remove a state law that allows only utility companies to sell electricity generated by solar panels or other alternative energy sources.

The two Democrats spoke a day after a public hearing held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the $1.2 billion closure of a faulty power plant in Crystal River.

Duke officials have said a trust fund required by regulators will be sufficient to cover those costs without any rate change for 2 million Florida customers, though Dudley said he expects more “surprise” expenses associated with the lengthy plant shutdown.

“Investor-owned utilities, which are for-profit monopolies that are just barely regulated by the Public Service Commission, are able to take money from consumers,” Dudley said. “And the Public Service Commission hardly ever says no.”

A law known as the Nuclear Cost Recovery Clause has allowed Duke to add 89 cents to customers’ monthly bill this year to cover the startup expenses for a power plant in Levy County that’s not going to be built.

Pinellas County customers staged several protests ahead of that settlement agreement last fall with the state’s Public Service Commission and many fear the utility will continue to increase rates each year to cover the nixed project.

The Crystal River plant is being paid for by a separate trust fund collected from consumer energy bills between 1977 and 2001, said Heather Danenhower, communications specialist at the Crystal River Nuclear Plant.

Castor said her bill would require big utilities to clearly show how much they would have to increase customer power bills before they begin building a new plant.

Most states don’t allow power companies to charge consumers until their power plants are finished and producing energy, she said.

“Consumers should not be on the hook for bad business decisions of our electric utilities,” she said.

Both lawmakers also bemoaned a Florida law they say discourages the use and expansion of solar and other alternative energy sources.

Dozens of states have adopted rules that provide incentives to power companies to reduce energy consumption and hit renewable energy benchmarks, but Florida isn’t on that list, Castor said.

Florida only allows utilities to sell electricity to consumers, which keeps conventional energy use high and dampens the alternative energy market, Dudley said.

“If I had a garage apartment that I want to sell renewable power to and I install panels on my roof, I’m prohibited,” he said of the current law.

If Dudley doesn’t get enough support for his bills in Tallahassee, he said he would work to get his legislation passed through a ballot initiative.

Castor also said she’s filing legislation to require buildings leased by the federal government to hit specific energy reduction benchmarks.

“Florida has a long way to go when it comes to energy policy,” Castor said, noting a 2013 report by the Solar Energy Industries Association that ranked Florida 18th in the nation for solar power.

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