Pay now for what you might get later

Last Wednesday, the St. Petersburg Times recognized the “Powerful Savings” available to Florida by investing in conservation. Yet the chief obstacle to conservation remains Florida’s commitment to overinvest in nuclear power. Even if the utilities had not biased their efficiency analysis with nonsensical limitations, their assumption that unlicensed nuclear reactors would be built on schedule counts against energy efficiency. This can’t make sense to the average person, and it shouldn’t make sense to the Commission.

Energy efficiency delivers immediate customer savings and helps avoid power plants. Nuclear power costs five to ten times more than energy efficiency. Florida's utililties are well behind national leaders on energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency delivers immediate customer savings and helps avoid power plants. Nuclear power costs five to ten times more than energy efficiency. Florida's utililties are well behind national leaders on energy efficiency.

But even within this strange world of utility regulation, nuclear power’s advocates can’t seem to close the deal on their own. It became clear last week that Progress Energy owes a big thank-you to the staff of the Public Service Commission. If they had actually asked the hard questions, the “long-term feasibility” of their Levy County nuclear power project would be in serious doubt. But thanks to the “tough” questions asked by the PSC staff, Progress Energy got what it wanted.

The occasion was a “prudency review” for the nuclear cost recovery docket for both Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light (FPL). Put in plain English, this is when your Public Service Commission decides whether the utilities are spending your money wisely on the four new nuclear reactors they hope to have online in 2017-21. Money they are collecting from you today, for electricity to serve the need of whoever is living and working in Florida over a decade from now.

There is a shocking disparity between the investment that Florida’s utilities are making in high risk, high cost resources like new nuclear reactors, and low risk, low cost resources like energy efficiency.

There’s a very clear motivation here – utility earnings are based on its investment in hard assets, like power plants. Energy efficiency just doesn’t offer the opportunity to grow earnings for shareholders in Florida like a new nuclear power plant does. (Although we’d like to help change that.)

The staff recommendation to give FPL and Progress Energy nearly all that they asked for was very disappointing but apparently not surprising given the controversy that has clouded the PSC over the last many weeks. (At least there is “no criminal wrongdoing” going on there. Well, that’s a relief.) The staff essentially rejected all the arguments made by the Office of Public Counsel, the Florida Industrial Public Users Group, PCS Phosphate-White Springs and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, instead siding with FPL and Progress Energy.

New nuclear power costs five to ten times more than energy efficiency, and takes five to ten times as long to build. Leadership from the Florida Public Service Commission, as they vote on this important measure on October 16, 2009, can put Florida’s utilities on the right track today for what we all need tomorrow.

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