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Progress Energy, FPL nuclear costs face double challenge

Environmental activitists and state utility customers advocate to challenge request by biggest power companies in Florida to continue charges on nuclear plants under construction

Kevin Spear, Sentinel Staff Writer

Environmental activists and the state advocate for utility customers plan to challenge Florida’s two biggest power companies this week when the companies urge state regulators to let them continue charging for the early costs of nuclear plants not yet under construction.

Florida Power & Light Co. and Progress Energy will appear before the Public Service Commission in Tallahassee for as many as four days of hearings to examine their nuclear costs during the past two years and their expected customer charges in the coming year.

The annual review comes amid a cycle of other hearings by the commission to consider controversial proposals to raise base rates for the two utilities’ more than 6 million combined customers.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is opposing new nuclear plants in several states, will ask the PSC to re-evaluate the urgency for new nuclear energy in Florida given the recession and the slowing growth of the utilities’ customer base.

Commissioners "can put the brakes on and give the utilities a chance to pause and reconsider what they are doing," said Sara Barczak, the alliance’s high-risk-energy director in Savannah, Ga. "We think that’s a very reasonable position to take. This stepping back literally could save billions of dollars for Florida utility ratepayers."

The Florida Office of Public Counsel, which acts on behalf of the state’s utility customers, will also press the PSC to consider whether Progress Energy made a costly mistake by signing a major contract shortly before federal authorities told the utility it could go no further with preliminary construction of its nuclear plant because of concerns about the geology where the reactors will sit.

Progress, Central Florida’s largest electric utility, hopes to build a plant in Levy County and has gotten further with its planning than FPL has.

"We’re saying that you — commission — need to look and make a determination whether there was as error in judgment on Progress’ part," said Charles Rehwinkel, associate public counsel.

If the PSC does determine that Progress erred, any extra costs might have to come out of the pockets of the utility’s investors rather than its customers, Rehwinkel said.

Progress officials said Friday they have already taken into account the country’s economic downturn and its project’s construction delays by reducing how much they want to bill customers next year for new nuclear power.

The utility is asking for permission to charge its customers $6.69 a month for the typical consumption of 1,000 kilowatt-hours, spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said. She noted that the utility could have sought more than $12 a month.

FPL, like Progress, contends that nuclear-power plants, though they take nearly a decade to license and build, are an increasingly needed source of electricity that does not contribute to climate change.

"That means working on power plants years in advance, so that they will be ready to provide dependable electric service to our customers when they need it," FPL spokesman Mayco Villafaña said.

Kevin Spear can be reached at or 407-420-5062.

What’s at stake
Issues on the table during this week’s Public Service Commission meeting in Tallahassee:

$6.69 per month
How much more Progress wants to charge its typical electric customer.

Need for nuclear
A group is asking for a new review of the need for more nuclear-derived energy in Florida, saying customers ’could save billions.’

Levy County plant
Another group wants the commission to determine whether Progress Energy jumped the gun on a contract for the planned facility and should be on the hook if extra costs result.