State Politics

House committee rejects attempts to impose new restrictions on utilities

Duke had expected to produce more than 3,000 megawatts of power after upgrades to the Crystal River nuclear power plant in Citrus County and building a pair of reactors in Levy County. MAURICE RIVENBARK | Tampa Bay Times (2013)
Duke had expected to produce more than 3,000 megawatts of power after upgrades to the Crystal River nuclear power plant in Citrus County and building a pair of reactors in Levy County. MAURICE RIVENBARK | Tampa Bay Times (2013)

The state board that regulates utilities will have to stream its meetings live on a website, but it won’t be forced to impose new restrictions on the powerful utility industry that holds sway over its commissioners.

The House Energy and Utilities Committee voted Monday to increase some accountability of the state Public Service Commission but rejected a series of amendments including one that would have repealed the controversial nuclear fee currently paid by Florida Power & Light customers without any guarantee that a nuclear plant will be built.

The fee, known as the advanced nuclear cost recovery, allowed Duke Energy to charge customers $3.2 billion to build a nuclear plant in Levy County that has now been scrapped. The PSC has ordered the company to return only $54 million of the money to customers.

“Nothing good has come with the utility tax,’’ said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who sponsored the failed amendment to repeal the advanced nuclear cost recovery fee. “You get the consumers to take all the risk and get the companies to get all the reward. What about American capitalism?”

Dudley’s amendment was one of several he tried and failed to attach to PCB EUS 15-01, a fast-moving proposal to make minor changes to the Public Service Commission in the name of increased accountability.

Dudley's amendments were rejected on voice votes by the GOP-dominated committee. The Florida Legislature has a long history of advancing the agenda of the powerful utility industry. In the last election cycle, the three largest electric companies — FPL, Duke Energy and Gulf Power — gave more than $3.5 million to the Republican Party of Florida and Gov. Rick Scott's campaign.

Under the House bill, people appointed to the five-member PSC would be limited to serving three four-year terms — something few commissioners have done in the recent past as most who have retired voluntarily have left to work for the utility industry. It also requires anyone who lobbies the commissioner, or the legislatively controlled board that nominates commissioners, to register to lobby.

The bill requires utilities to get PSC approval before it charges customers higher rates for higher usage as a result of extended billing periods. It also would limit how much utilities can charge their customers for deposits.

The measure also requires the PSC to live-stream all its meetings, prohibit commissioners from accepting anything of value from a utility or a utility subsidiary, and ban them from discussing pending business with parties involved in a rate case. The commission already makes many of its meetings available via audio or video feed and is currently prohibited from accepting anything of value or discussing pending rate cases.

Susan Glickman, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, criticized the bill as making “tweaks that are very minor” while it fails to fix major issues affecting consumers.

She said that after the election, the PSC “gutted” energy efficiency standards and continued to allow utility companies to “overbuild” while “doing nothing to insulate customers from the over-reliance on natural gas.”

“You can do better,’’ Glickman said. “That’s why people send you up here.”

Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, called the measure a “consumer-friendly bill intended to enhance the public’s confidence in the Public Service Commission.”

Dudley proposed requiring PSC commissioners to be elected to two-year terms, instead of the current process that allows the governor to appoint them to four-year terms. But the idea was rejected by the GOP-dominated committee as an attempt to politicize the board.

He also proposed requiring the PSC to conduct meetings on controversial rate cases in the hometowns of the consumers who are most affected, but it was rejected as unnecessary.

The issue that drew the most debate was a proposal by Dudley to ban utilities from entering into partnerships to do exploratory drilling for oil and gas at customers’ expense.

The PSC approved a plan in December to allow FPL to charge customers $191 million to conduct exploratory fracking for natural gas in Oklahoma and it is considering another proposal to allow FPL to invest $750 million a year in oil and gas ventures.

“When you have a huge corporation that is certainly financially doing just fine, they don’t really need ratepayers to subsidize them,’’ he said.

Jon Moyle, lawyer for the Florida Industrial Power User Group, urged the committee to support the amendment and send a message to the PSC that it does not have the authority to let utilities use customer money to finance risky speculation.

“We don’t think you have given jurisdiction to the commission to get into the wildcatting business in Oklahoma,’’ he said. “The consumers do not want that risk.”

With no debate, the committee rejected the amendment as it did with all the amendments sponsored by Dudley, who came to office vowing to challenge the Public Services Commission, which regulates utilities.

Nonetheless, Dudley voted for the bill.

“This is a good start,’’ he said.

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