Senate bill takes more aggressive approach to ratcheting down the fee electric customers pay for nuclear power development, while a House bill leaves charges intact.

Herald/TimesTallahassee BureauApril 19, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida legislators continue to fast-track two proposals to rework the unpopular nuclear fee on customer utility bills, but activists say the two plans will have drastically different impacts on customers.

The House bill (PCB 13-01) will allow Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy to continue collecting the controversial nuclear fee to pay for the development of power plants -- even if the plants are never constructed.

The Senate plan (SB 1472) could end the fee if the utilities fail to obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- a process that the federal government has put on hold.

Since 2006, when lawmakers passed the nuclear cost recovery statute to encourage nuclear power development, Florida customers of Tampa-based Progress Energy and Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light have paid an estimated $1.5 billion in fees to pay for nuclear power plant development.

The Senate and House bills could end development of nuclear power plants outside existing proposals, but each takes a different approach to current projects.

"The Senate has a frame

work to impose a series of new decision points that say it's much better to walk away from the $1.5 billion we've already spent than to waste another $35 billion more," said Mark Cooper, senior fellow with the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School, who has analyzed the bills. "The House does exactly the opposite."

Florida Power & Light collected $530 million from the nuclear fee and used the money to finance expansions to its existing power plants at Turkey Point and in St. Lucie County. It has also proposed building two new reactors at Turkey Point, but has not obtained a permit to do it.

Florida's utility companies have said they oppose any change to the law.

Voter discontent with Tampa-based Progress Energy's troubled power plant prompted four Tampa-area senators to take the more aggressive approach to revamping the law, although they have stopped short of repealing the proposal.

Under the Senate bill, after the utility obtains its license for the nuclear plant it must petition the Public Service Commission before it can get approval to charge customers for any additional costs associated with the plant's development.

"If we had this bill in place six years ago, the issues dealing with the Progress Energy Levy plant, instead of being an $800 million project, it would have been significantly lower," said state Sen. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, a Senate bill sponsor.

Susan Glickman, lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is pushing for alternatives to nuclear power, said the effectiveness of the Senate bill "depends upon how rigorous the Public Service Commission is in their review."

The Senate Community Affairs Committee voted unanimously to approve the bill.

By contrast, the House allows the companies to continue business as usual but imposes new rules on future nuclear projects. It requires utilities to include a line item on each customer's utility bill showing how much is going toward nuclear construction.

The House Regulatory Affairs Committee rejected a series of amendments by state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, to force state regulators to consider alternatives to nuclear power before imposing the nuclear fee. "It keeps us from picking winners and losers," she said.

House Republicans, many elected on the strength of the utility industry's campaign contributions, have flatly rejected using the rewrite of the nuclear fees law to allow for any competition to the utility giants.

The bills change the interest rate utility companies can charge customers to pay for development of nuclear plants, saving an estimated $800 million over the 20-year life of the construction process.

The Senate bill also allows the PSC to authorize a rebate to customers in certain circumstances, but neither Legg, nor Curt Kiser, general counsel for the Public Service Commission, could conceive of any scenario that would allow customers to receive a refund.

Mary Ellen Klas, can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

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