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Clean energy advocates educate Floridians about electric rate hikes ahead of campaign launch

TECO's  Big Bend Power Station
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On March 7, the Florida Public Service Commission is expected to decide whether or not to approve rate hikes from Tampa Electric and Duke Energy Florida because of rising natural gas costs and expensive storm preparations.

Clean energy advocates held an online event this week to educate Florida residents on why their electric bills have been increasing so much in recent years: as the cost of fossil fuel goes up, so do rates.

The national nonprofit Food and Water Watch partnered with the CLEO Institute, Florida Conservation Voters, Florida Rising, Florida Student Power Network, and Tampa DSA EcoSocialists to co-host the gathering for about 40 virtual participants on Tuesday evening.

Tampa Electric and Duke Energy Florida are both seeking approval from a state commission to pass along hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs to customers due to storms and higher-than-expected natural gas prices.

If approved, the increases would mean around 10% higher electric bills for Tampa Electric customers and 20% for Duke Energy Florida customers by April.

“Over the past few years, these utility companies have seen massive profit growth in the billions of dollars, while the average Floridian just keeps footing that ever-increasing bill. And unfortunately, we currently have little or no say in these rising rates,” said Brooke Ward, Florida organizer of Food and Water Watch.

To help customers of TECO, Duke, and Florida Power and Light understand what exactly they’re paying for every month, Ward broke down an actual January bill from TECO:

Screen shot of a zoom call, where the left side shows a blown up image of an electric bill highlighting "Daily Basic Service Charge" of $24.14, "Energy Charge" of $58.27, "Fuel Charge" of $38.51, and "Storm Protection Charge" of $3.17. On the right side, shows Brooke Ward speaking to others on the zoom call.
Jessica Meszaros
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Screenshot
Rate Hikes: What's Up With My Bill? event on Zoom.

Basic Service Charge

Base rates, which are decided every four years in a special hearing, cover costs of operations, maintenance and infrastructure. Ward also emphasized executive compensation and guaranteed profits under this umbrella. And even if you don’t use your electricity for a particular month, this must be paid.

Energy Charge

Efficiency, environmental compliance, capacity and rebuilding rate hikes don’t need to wait for the typical four-year hearing to be approved, as they can be added as part of complying with state laws.

Fuel Charge

Fuel, used to produce the electricity, accounts for about one-third of residents' bills, according to Ward.

"This is also the part of the bill that has been most rapidly growing, because the cost of fuels is volatile. In fact, the cost of fossil fuels has tripled since 2020,” she said. “This is where we can make the biggest cuts by moving away from expensive fossil fuel costs and onto cheap, renewable energy."

Storm Protection Charge

Ward said residents are paying for storm preparations even if their areas did not ultimately get impacted.

"In fact, in TECO's most recent storm cost recovery filing, they are asking for recovery of nearly $131 million of storm costs from seven storms, even though only two of those actually impacted their service area. And we have to foot that bill," she said.

According to a Tampa Electric document sent to the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates private utilities, it would like to recover $1,944 from Tropical Storm Alberto, $7,499,858 from Hurricane Dorian, $8,282 from Tropical Storm Nestor, $729,515 from Tropical Storm Eta, $1,874,575 from Hurricane Elsa, $119,216,291 from Hurricane Ian, $1,152,980 from Hurricane Nicole, and $397,518 from ARCOS, which offers workforce management software solutions for automated crew callout and planning.

The Public Service Commission is slated to decide whether or not to approve these storm costs, plus fuel increases from both Tampa Electric and Duke Energy Florida, during its meeting on March 7.

Cherie Jacobs of Tampa Electric said in an email that the utility has phased-in recent increases in two steps to reduce the impact on customer budgets.

"The first step was in January. If approved by the PSC on March 7, the second step will be in April. To further reduce the impact on customers, the company requested fuel costs be spread over 21 months, through the end of 2024. Storm costs would be spread over 12 months (April 2023 through March 2024)," she said.

Jacobs also pointed out that TECO customers saved about $80 million in fuel costs in 2022 because of the utility's "investment in clean, renewable solar power."

Duke Energy Florida's Ana Gibbs said in an email that the utility does not profit from increased fuel costs, and that the company "takes measures to insulate customers from volatility."

"Through past efforts such as 2021’s Rate Mitigation Plan, Duke Energy Florida sought to lessen the impact to customers from the fuel price increases. These costs are market-driven and passed through to customers with no markup," she said.

"As a result of the company’s continued commitment to solar investments, Duke Energy Florida is already passing approximately $56 million of corporate tax savings annually to customers from the Inflation Reduction Act."

FPL did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Brooke Ward announced during the Tuesday evening rate hike educational event that a community campaign to push back on rate hikes will kick off the evening of Monday, Feb. 27.

If you need help paying for your electricity, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is available.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.