Senate bills targeting utilities; PSC wins committee support

— A Senate committee gave support Tuesday for two measures that seek to make the Public Service Commission more consumer-friendly and to guard electricity customers from some utility billing practices.

One bill, by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would prohibit utilities from charging customers higher rates for higher usage as a result of extended billing periods, and would limit how much utilities can charge their customers for deposits.

The bill also would require the PSC to hold public hearings on rates in utilities’ service areas and to stream them live on the Internet, require PSC members to receive ethics training, and require anyone who lobbies the PSC nominating council to register. The council sends PSC nominees to the governor.

A second bill, by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, would limit the number of days a utility can extend a customer’s bill to seven.

Meanwhile, some consumers aren’t waiting on Tallahassee to act.

An unusual coalition of solar proponents on Tuesday announced a growing number of backers for a ballot initiative to allow those who generate electricity from the sun to sell the power directly to other consumers.

Almost two-dozen organizations have banded together from across the political spectrum — tea party and Christian Coalition conservatives, the Florida Retail Federation, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, among others — for what they call an opportunity for consumers to choose how they get their power.

Announcement of the growing coalition came at a press conference during which the group detailed the status of its petition drive. After about a month, the coalition said it has generated 100,000 signatures for the petition drive, a significant milestone toward the 683,149 signatures needed to get the petition on the 2016 election ballot.

“The positive response has been overwhelming,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “One thousand plus people are saying they want to help.”

Much of the public and political angst stems from a series of troubles with Duke Energy Florida and its failed nuclear projects that are costing consumers $3.2 billion.

In addition, the Tampa Bay Times detailed last summer how Duke added weeks to some customers’ bills, not only increasing their total bills but in some cases bumping them into higher rates. That’s because Duke increases customer charges after usage exceeds 1,000 kilowatt hours.

Also, businesses, including churches, were put on rate tiers that were higher than necessary. And some businesses received demands for security deposits that were as much as five times higher than their average monthly usage.

“It’s probably hard to understand the number of e-mails, the public input that we get on this,” Latvala told the committee. He said while some utilities might be improving their service and practices, Duke Energy “has gotten worse. That’s why I decided it’s time to act.”

To ensure that customers get more of the protections they need, Latvala said he also wanted tougher requirements for the commission.

“The [term] public service in Public Service Commission should remind everyone why they’re there,” he said.

Contact Ivan Penn at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.