A Florida woman was arrested this week for allegedly stealing over $11,000 in power from Duke Energy for her father’s home, yet the same utility company causing the arrest continues to keep millions in unearned fees paid by customers for nuclear facilities which will never be built. As reported in the Orlando Sentinel, Iris Corredor of Kissimmee was arrested for paying only a minimal meter fee every month since 2010 for her father’s home in Deltona, Florida. The woman is responsible for paying the utility bills for her elderly father and denies that she tampered with the electric meter on his house. While Ms. Corredor may well be in the wrong, Duke Energy uses lobbying clout to remain on the right side of the law and keep nuclear surcharges running in the millions for facilities which are no longer even in the planning stage.
In 2006, Florida utility companies, including Duke’s predecessor Progress Energy, lobbied the legislature to pass a law which allowed the companies to charge their rate paying customres for up-front planning and permitting fees for nuclear facilities. On its face, the law does not seem unfair given the time and expense for permitting and constructing a nuclear facility. Still, the U.S. government has not approved construction of a new nuclear energy plant in over 30 years; therefore, funds raised for a nuclear power facility could reasonably be viewed as speculative in nature. Under the law, the utility companies are not required to refund nuclear surcharge fees collected if plans for a facility are scrapped. In 2013, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Public Service Commission’s decision to allow $282 million in nuclear surcharges for 2012 alone.
The system is set up to be very utility company friendly. Using electric service without paying the full price is a crime punishable by imprisonment. Conversely, using billions in customer fees on pipedream nuclear facilities which may or may not have a reasonable likelihood of construction is entirely legal in Florida. For a state which generally prohibits casinos except for tribal facilities, the legislature encourages speculation with rate payer dollars. One could make a reasonable argument that clean nuclear power is good for the state and that Florida businesses profit from the work generated in nuclear facility citing. These are legitimate legislative goals, but using “house money” with no possibility of a payback to customers is another matter.
Utility companies such as Duke Energy and Florida Power and Light can continue to receive and to keep millions in nuclear surcharges for planned facilities no longer under active consideration, yet consumers can be arrested and jailed for failing to pay the full electric fees due. In the instance of the Kissimmee woman, the power company could have noticed the situation much faster to alleviate its losses. The power company could also have realized that a planned facility in Levy County was never going to be permitted early in the game, instead the company kept spending surcharge money to forge ahead. Duke Energy was given the incentive to keep going ahead because the costs were covered by the rate payers and the law allowed the utility to even keep a percentage as profit.
Some legislators in Florida are pursuing a legislative change which will require the utility companies to return nuclear surcharge fees collected for planned facilities that never materialized. Approximately $1.5 billion will end up being collected for the nonexistent Levy County facility unless a legislative change occurs. Utility company Duke Energy is allowed to keep its unearned millions in nuclear surcharge fees, yet a Florida woman is arrested for $11,000 in unpaid electric usage bills. The utilities keeping all the nuclear surcharge fees for scrapped projects is entirely legal, but rankles those opposed to crony capitalism.
Opinion by William Costolo