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Could be lights out in Senate for utility rate hike

Friday, April 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Legislation that would have given Florida Power & Light and other investor-owned utilities authority to boost customer rates $377 million over the next five years looks troubled in the state Senate.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander said he spoke Friday with Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, chairman of the Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee that advanced the legislation (CS/SB 2078) earlier this month.

Alexander said that in their conversation, he discouraged Benacquisto from continuing with the legislation, as crafted, since it gave utilities authority to raise rates without prior approval by regulators.

Alexander, one of the Senate leaders, said Benacquisto, a first-year lawmaker, has agreed, and is reworking it. Benacquisto couldn’t be immediately reached Friday evening. 

“If it’s a…carve-out with no regulatory oversight, I think that’s not ideal,” Alexander said, adding that the legislation involved a “heckuva lot of money.”

The electric companies, heavy contributors to both political parties, would have been allowed to tack on an additional charge — without prior approval by state regulators — to cover their costs of building solar and biomass energy plants or buying renewable energy from producers.

For FPL’s 4 million customers, mostly in South Florida, the Jupiter-based utility’s $206.1 million share could mean an extra $2.40-a-month on average, or $28.80 annually, to encourage the use of alternate sources to oil-, gas-, coal-, or nuclear power.

Supporters said the move will create jobs in the burgeoning renewable industry. Critics said the extra charge is a giveaway, especially to FPL which last year was denied most of a $1.25 billion rate hike by the Florida Public Service Commission.

“I’m just concerned about that level of unregulated choice by IOUs. That doesn’t strike me as the way the Senate wants to be,” Alexander said.

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