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Monday, Oct 23, 2017
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Editorial: Duke’s attitude change, new PSC rules, a welcome turn

Duke Energy Florida’s surprising offer to save its customers money, along with the Legislature’s passage of a bill meant to bring more accountability to the state’s utility regulators, are welcome developments for Duke’s customers and the state.

Last week, the Senate passed a measure Duke offered as a way to save its customers a few dollars a month. It was tacked onto a bill meant to bring accountability and transparency to the compliant Public Service Commission, which is supposed to regulate the utilities but pretty much gives them whatever they want.

Though a bit watered down by the House, which characteristically buckled to pressure from utility lobbyists, the overall bill is good for Duke ratepayers and represents a needed start in reforming the PSC. Its passage by the dysfunctional Legislature is one of the few bright spots this past legislative session, and Gov. Rick Scott should sign the bill into law.

Under the measure, state regulators would allow the utility to issue bonds as a way to pay off costs related to Duke’s closed Crystal River nuclear plant. The savings could reach $600 million over 20 years and save customers between $2 and $3 a month. That’s a small savings for customers, but better than no savings at all.

On the reform front, the bill would limit the PSC’s five members — who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate — to three consecutive four-year terms and require the utilities to inform customers about the best available rates. It would also prevent utilities from charging higher rates when they extend billing cycles.

Unfortunately, the bill stops short of more consequential reforms. A 2006 law that allows utilities to collect billions from customers up-front for costs related to nuclear plants should be repealed. The law was meant to encourage plant construction, but has been turned on its head by Duke’s insistence that customers pay for its failed nuclear efforts.

But repeal seems an impossibility in Tallahassee, where the utilities contribute millions to lawmakers who say the up-front costs might still be needed by the utilities to meet Florida’s energy needs some day. A savings of a few bucks is about all that can be expected.

Duke’s plan to lower customer bills follows an announcement that it will build 500 megawatts of solar energy over the next decade, doubling the amount of solar currently installed in the state. The utility had previously taken the ridiculous position that Florida wasn’t a good state to produce solar energy. Now a Duke spokesman says the decreasing costs associated with producing solar energy makes it reasonable for Duke to consider solar as part of the utility’s long-range plan.

Solar advocates are underwhelmed by the plan and its 10-year rollout. They say it’s an obvious reaction to the growing public support for diversifying the state’s energy sources, and comes as support grows for a constitutional amendment that would promote more solar energy, whether the utilities like it or not.

Both of Duke’s offerings are less than the public may want, but they represent welcome changes deserving of some credit.

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