Public Service Commission digs into nuclear costs at FP&L and Progress Energy

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State regulators Wednesday began weighing whether Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida should be able to pass along nearly $300 million in costs next year to customers for nuclear-power projects, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The state’s largest electric utilities are seeking approval from the Florida Public Service Commission to collect money that goes toward upgrading already-existing nuclear plants and helps pay for early work on possible new reactors.

But a broad settlement agreement early this year could reduce debate about one of the most controversial projects — a Progress Energy proposal to build two new reactors in Levy County. That settlement, between Progress and representatives of customer groups, attempted to resolve a handful of major issues and would allow the utility to collect about $350 million over five years as it pursues licenses for the Levy project.

The commission Wednesday heard testimony from an expert witness for FPL but will move into a full-blown hearing on the nuclear costs Monday. It will decide later this fall how much the utilities should be able to collect.

In all, FPL is asking to collect $151.5 million next year, while Progress is seeking about $145 million. If approved, the proposals would have relatively little effect on most customers’ bills — for example, the FPL proposal would cost $1.65 a month for a residential customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, a common measuring stick in the utility industry.

Such costs, however, are highly controversial and have even led to a legal challenge by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy that is pending in the Florida Supreme Court. Trying to spur more nuclear power, state lawmakers in 2006 allowed utilities to bill customers for some upfront costs of nuclear projects, though new plants might not start generating electricity for years, if ever.

If Progress builds the Levy County project, the first reactor would not start operating until 2024, according to a PSC document. Similarly, FPL is working on possibly adding two new reactors at its Turkey Point complex in Miami-Dade County, with generation starting in 2022 at the earliest.

But while the potential new plants have drawn the most controversy, a major part of the PSC hearing could focus on projects to upgrade already-existing nuclear plants. About 90 percent of the money FPL is seeking would go toward upgrade projects at plants in Miami-Dade and St. Lucie counties — not to the possible new reactors.

Joseph McGlothlin, an attorney for the state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers, indicated during Wednesday’s meeting that he will question FPL cost overruns related to the upgrades.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.