House Approves Reforms For Utility Regulators

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — A newly passed House bill Wednesday will limit terms on future state utility regulators and save Duke Energy Florida customers some money in their monthly bills.

Still, some legislators said more reform of the Florida Public Service Commission is needed as a way to better control private utilities.

“We wouldn’t need this bill if we had better regulation of our utilities,” said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. “We wouldn’t need this bill to give money back to consumers if this body had led on these issues and done the right thing.”

The Senate version of the bill (SB 288) is expected to be heard Thursday on the Senate floor.

The House bill (HB 7109), in part, would limit future Public Service Commission members to three consecutive four-year terms and require commissioners to undergo annual ethics training. The bill also would require utilities to notify customers of the best available rates and prevent electric utilities from charging higher rates through extensions of billing cycles.

The billing item stems from an effort by Duke in 2013 and 2014 to redesign meter-reading routes, which led to changes in billing cycles.

The bill also includes a provision, proposed by Duke Energy, that would allow the utility to issue “securitization” bonds as an option to pay off costs, projected at $1.4 billion, for repairs of the decommissioned Crystal River nuclear plant.

The Crystal River facility was shuttered much earlier than expected because of damage to a containment building. The plant was permanently shut down in 2013, though it had not generated electricity since 2009.

Duke believes the bonds will allow interest costs on the closed plant to be lowered from the current 7 percent to 2.6 percent. The reduction would decrease the overall cost to customers by about $600 million over 20 years.

For a residential customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours a month of electricity, the reduction is projected to save about $2.42 a month.

House members Tuesday proposed a series of amendments that failed or were withdrawn. Those amendments, mostly proposed by lawmakers from the Tampa Bay region, ranged from requiring refunds of customer money spent on nuclear projects to requiring PSC members who are now appointed by Gov. Rick Scott through a nominating process to be elected by voters.

Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, while acknowledging the bill seeks to tackle “some of the much needed changes” at the commission said she “will look forward to digging in next year a little deeper.” The utility-regulation issue has particularly been high-profile in parts of the Tampa Bay area served by Duke Energy.

Bill sponsor Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, said he’s willing to have further discussions regarding state regulators. But he added that the reform now on the table is “necessary and reform that ultimately will help our taxpayers, the ratepayers, that are within the region that have had some trouble the past few years.”
(The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.)

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