Senate committee amps up changes to nuclear construction fee collections

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Power companies may not have to repay customers the money collected for nuclear plant work that fails to advance, reports Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida.

However, the electric giants could have new hurdles for imposing nuclear-project charges in the future.

Under a proposal amended Monday in the Senate, utilities would have 20 years to charge customers for pre-construction costs once they get licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

At the halfway mark they could be required by the state Public Service Commission, or decide on their own, to stop collecting. But there may not be an automatic refund.

“I wouldn’t want to provide any incentives for the utilities to make decisions that may sound good in the short term, but may end up costing the consumer more in the long term,” said Senate Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Chairwoman Anitere Flores.

The committee approved a pair of amendments on Monday to the proposal (SB 1472), which was crafted by Tampa-area legislators with the intention of rolling back controversial pre-construction fees electric companies have been able to charge under a 2006 law. Progress Energy Florida has proposed building new reactors in Levy County, while Florida Power & Light has proposed a project in Miami-Dade County and also has upgraded existing nuclear plants.

“This is not an anti-nuclear bill,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz. “This puts reasonable parameters going forward, it puts reasonable expectations and reasonable benchmarks to ensure the consumers their funds are being protected and the energy needs of the state are being met.”

The amendments haven’t altered the opposition from the state’s energy giants to Legg’s proposal.

“We believe, Progress Energy believes, it would have significant impact on the future of nuclear in the state of Florida,” said Progress Energy Florida spokesman Sterling Ivey.

Under an amendment by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, power companies could only start charging customers after they begin the application process to receive a license for a nuclear power plant from the NRC.

But the charges could only be enough to cover the cost of obtaining the license, which could still be a couple hundred million dollars, Simpson said.

After the license is approved, the PSC could approve new costs based upon the construction projections for the plant. 

During this time, the PSC would have to approve any preconstruction materials or equipment purchases that exceed 1 percent of the overall projected cost of the construction. 

Simpson and Legg would have preferred the power companies get five years to proceed with their plans before having to ask the PSC if the charges could continue or they would need to repay the money. But Flores added a second amendment that gives the power companies 10 years for the PSC review and eliminated the refund.

Flores said the extension “is a little more reasonable” because most nuclear projects take about two decades to complete.

Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, considered the amendments a “good starting point.”

The Southern Alliance has filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court against the PSC’s decisions in 2011 that allowed utilities to continue charging customers.

Progress Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light Co. have collectively been able to charge customers hundreds of millions of dollars for construction planning.

The Senate bill has only more stop, the Community Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Simpson.

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.