Five years and more than $650 million into refurbishing and building nuclear reactors, Florida Power & Light officials told regulators Monday that it can’t guarantee what new reactors will cost consumers, when the reactors will deliver energy, or even if it will get a license to finish the job.
Despite the uncertainty, the state’s largest electric company asked regulators to allow it to continue to charge customers to pay for the prospective expansion of the Turkey Point plant on Biscayne Bay in south Miami-Dade County.
The monthly cost on every customer bill in 2014: 48 cents per 1,000 kilowatt hour on every customer bill, down from the $1.65 a month charged this year to pay for upgrades on the existing reactors.
The earliest conceivable date the project could generate power: 2022.
“I can’t commit to a date certain, or a cost certain,” said Steve Scroggs, senior project manager for FPL. “I can tell you that it is every bit the company’s intention to complete this project,’’ he added, acknowledging that getting a license for the project to begin may still be years away.
Scroggs and other FPL officials argued, however, that the project is a good bet for customers because they intend to build the plant and, if they succeed, the payoff — fuel savings of more than $78 billion over the life of the plant — will be worth it.
The Public Service Commission will decide this fall whether it agrees. But shrouding FPL’s request is the rocky history of speculative nuclear power in Florida.
Last week, Duke Energy of Florida, the state’s second largest electric utility, announced it was indefinitely scrapping plans to build a nuclear reactor in Levy County after collecting more than $1 billion from customers in pre-construction costs and equipment before it obtained a license.
Like FPL, Duke Energy was allowed to charge customers in advance to build nuclear plants under a 2006 law intended to encourage low-emission energy production for the capital intensive nuclear plants.
For years, critics warned that the law failed consumers and provided few safeguards that the money would lead to construction of plants, instead of profits for shareholders. When legislators proposed tightening the law, FPL and Duke Energy’s predecessor, Progress Energy, vigorously fought the efforts and the bills never got a hearing.
This year, the law was changed to require the companies to prove that their nuclear projects are reasonable and financially feasible. The companies must now also start building a plant within 10 years of receiving a license, or they have to forfeit the ability to charge the nuclear fees.
Joe McGlothlin, attorney with the Office of Public Counsel which represents the public in utility cases, told regulators that the annual cost of the proposed Turkey Point reactors has more than doubled from $750 million to $2.2 billion in the last year, evidence that it is no longer a reasonable cost.
“We submit that the legislature did not intend to promote nuclear capacity at any cost,’’ he said, urging the commission to reject the rate request and refuse to let the company collect on $200 million in other “unreasonable costs.”
George Cavros, an attorney for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, also urged the PSC to reject FPL’s request and avoid another ‘‘financial fiasco.”
“FPL consumers don’t want to suffer the same fate as Duke Energy customers,’’ he said. “The company is five years into the project and still can’t commit to a price for the project, a date for the project and it can’t commit to the 2022 time frame — or commit that the project will be built at all. We feel that is inconsistent with commission rules.”
But FPL’s Scroggs testified that the company is managing its costs carefully and the small investment now will reduce financial costs into the future.
Also overshadowing the decision is politics: two commissioners — Art Graham and Ronald Brise — are up for reappointment by the PSC nominating commission that is controlled by the Republican-led legislature. Gov. Rick Scott will make the appointment and FPL remains among the top contributors to both the GOP and Scott’s political committees.
In other commission action, the PSC on Monday agreed to allow Duke Energy of Florida collect another $108 million a year through 2017 for the now shuttered Crystal River reactor and the canceled Levy County project.
The decision will add 89 cents a month for 1,000 kilowatts of energy to current bills for the company’s 1.6 million customers. The PSC also agreed to Duke Energy’s request to defer approval of a proposed settlement agreement it entered into with the state Public Counsel’s Office. The company agreed to end plans to build the Levy Plant and will work out how to pay the $3.2 billion bill for ending that project and shuttering the Crystal River plant at a hearing next fall.