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Clean energy activists want Hillsborough County to hold public discussions on ending fossil fuel use

 Nine people standing together holding signs on climate change with a beige government building behind them.
Jessica Meszaros
/
WUSF Public Media
Members of the Tampa Bay Climate Alliance rallying in front of the Frederick B. Karl County Center ahead of a Hillsborough Board of County Commission meeting June 22, 2023.

"As we enter the summer, heat is rising, bills are rising, our energy burden becomes more and more unaffordable," said Brooke Ward of Food and Water Watch.

Clean energy activists held a small rally in downtown Tampa on Thursday, asking Hillsborough’s Board of County Commissioners to hold a public meeting on ending fossil fuel dependency.

Nine activists gathered outside the Frederick B. Karl County Center just before Hillsborough commissioners held their regular meeting.

Brooke Ward, senior Florida organizer for Food and Water Watch, said they've been pleading for months with commissioners to address electricity bill rate hikes, which have been partially caused by the increasing cost of fossil fuels used to create energy.

The spike for Tampa Electric, or TECO, customers started in April, increasing by 9.8%. The average bill has risen 62% since 2019 — from $99.53 to $161.13.

Ward said the Hillsborough region is one of the utility’s largest customers.

"Today, we are here to say we can't wait any longer. As we enter the summer, heat is rising, bills are rising, our energy burden becomes more and more unaffordable," Ward said. “It is time to act. Your constituents need you to act, so please plan a public meeting where the community can work with you to find a solution to our fossil fuel rate hikes.”

Rate hikes force difficult decisions

Dave Coleman, a Hillsborough resident for 23 years, spoke during the rally on behalf of seniors living on a fixed income. He said the recent rate hikes have forced him to make some hard decisions.

"I cut my food budget and I pay my TECO bill first out of my food money," Coleman said.

Black and Latino communities are disproportionately affected by these rate hikes, which can lead to gentrification and evictions, said Getulio Gonzalez-Mulattieri with the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.

“What LULAC is demanding, and what all these groups in the Tampa Bay Climate Alliance is demanding, is that we have a plan that focuses on prevention, that focuses on mitigation, that focuses on resilience, and that focuses on recovery,” Gonzalez-Mulattieri said.

“When it comes to climate disaster, I've seen, firsthand, people in the Latino community who have spent weeks without energy in response to a hurricane or some other type of climate disaster; their food has been spoiled; their insulin has gone bad. This is an issue here in the state of Florida, and climate change won't wait.”

These advocates also spoke during the board's public comment period, inviting the commissioners to work with them on an action plan.

Tampa's plan to end fossil fuel reliance

In just the past week, the City of Tampaand Pinellas County have each released their own climate and resiliency action plans.

Ward asked Hillsborough commissioners to follow the example of Tampa’s plan, which said phasing out fossil fuels would drop electricity bills to an average of under $30 a month.

Hillsborough commissioners did not acknowledge the group’s request during their Thursday meeting.

Although, the board did send a letter back in April to the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, requesting it hold local meetings to discuss the rate hikes it continues to approve, since they typically take place about 200 miles away in Tallahassee.

The Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners has not indicated that the FPSC has responded to their letter.

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.