Brooke Ward, the Florida Senior Organizer with Food & Water Watch, speaking at a press conference in Tampa on Jan. 25, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)
Millions of Floridians may have encountered sticker shock when they opened their electricity bills over the past few weeks: They saw increases and some busted budgets at home.
Duke Energy Florida residential customer’s monthly bills for those using 1,000 kilowatt-hours saw about a 13 percent increase in January. Tampa Electric Company (TECO) residential customer bills increased on average by 11 percent, according to the utility companies.
As to Florida Power & Light, residential customers will soon see their monthly bills go from an average of $120.67 in December to $129.59 in February.
The rising costs of natural gas – the main source of where Florida utilities get their power– has been identified as the main culprit for higher electricity costs.
”The price of natural gas has tripled since 2020 due to global and economic conditions,” Archie Collins, the CEO of Tampa Electric said in announcing the company’s price hikes last December.
And those electricity bill rates are going to increase in the next few months.
Last week those same investor-owned utilities went before the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) – the agency that regulates the utilities – to seek what are called “mid-course corrections.” Those corrections are used when a utility company’s costs increase or decrease significantly within a calendar year, according to PSC documents. The companies filed to recover costs associated with increased fuel prices and hurricanes from 2022.
That means there will be rate increases for consumers, and the outlook for ratepayers isn’t positive.
“They’re getting hit now, and they’re going to get a massive hit in a couple of months on their bills, if the commission approves it,” says George Cavros, the Florida director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
In a reflection of the growing anger about rising energy costs, a group of University of South Florida students and climate activists held a silent protest of TECO People’s Gas President Helen Wesley while she was being interviewed at an event in downtown Tampa last week.
Brooke Ward, a senior Florida organizer with the group Food & Water Watch, said at a press conference afterwards that TECO ratepayers will soon be paying $41 per month more on average than they did a year ago for their electricity bill, annualized to $492 more than they were paying at this time last year.
“This is just outrageous,” she said.
Duke Energy Florida announced last week that if their requests for mid-course corrections for around $795 million in net fuel costs and approximately $442 million for storm restoration from hurricanes Ian and Nicole are approved by the PSC, it will likely result in a 20 percent increase or about $33.49 for a typical residential customer in April. And Duke says commercial and industrial customers could see increases from ranging from 19 to 37 percent.
This is the second year in a row that the utilities have come back before the PSC to get a mid-course correction.
Everyone in the country is now paying higher energy bills than they did a year ago because of multiple factors, says Mark Wolfe, the executive director with the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA).
“We’re really in a period of volatility in energy pricing,” he says. “It’s not going to end anytime soon, so you really have to think about how to reduce the energy we use. Because you can’t control the price.”
Last November NEADA reported that more than 20 million families nationally – or about one in six – were behind on their utility bills.
Efficiency programs help
So how do Floridians struggling with escalating housing and property insurance premiums deal with these added utility costs in their budgets?
That’s when the utilities can help out, by offering energy efficiency programs such as rebates on approved lists of electrical appliances for certain heating and air conditioning systems, lighting products or electrical appliances.
But Florida’s investor-owned utilities came up short in offering those efficiency programs compared to other major power companies nationally, according to a 2021 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a national independent non-profit research organization.
In scoring the largest 52 electric investor-owned utilities nationally, they found that Florida’s three biggest utilities ranked among the lowest in the nation: TECO ranked 46th, Duke Florida, 48th and FPL 51st.
“It’s important to consider the sourcing of this report– as this same group (that) recently dubbed states like California, Massachusetts and New York as leading the nation in energy efficiency,” said FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath. (The report listed investor-owned utilities, but McGrath used another data point, related to states.) He said, “These states also happen to have some of the highest electric rates in the United States, while FPL customers have consistently paid bills well below the national average. That’s because energy efficiency programs are funded through customers’ electric bills.”
Cavros, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says the importance of such programs can’t be underestimated.
“When customers are reducing their use, the utilities are burning less fuel on its system, so that’s a benefit to all customers,” he says. “Additionally, that helps hard working families who are struggling to pay bills manage and lower their energy use and save money on bills.”
Cherie Jacobs, a spokesperson for Tampa Electric, says her company provides more energy-savings programs than any other utility in the state, and has contributed $2 million to help qualified customers pay past-due bills, and created a “Customer Assistance team to connect eligible customers with financial assistance and to ensure they get the help they need.”
Not a one-size-fits-all approach
In noting in what they have done, a Duke Energy Florida spokesperson pointed to how the company filed a proposal with the PSC in the summer of 2021 to provide additional assistance to customers through their low-income programs that were developed with representatives from several consumer groups such as the CLEO Institute, Vote Solar and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“It’s important to understand, Duke Energy does not use a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” says spokesperson Ana Gibbs. “If customers are experiencing a hardship with bills, it’s critical they reach out to us. We’re here to help.”
Using information from the government’s U.S. Energy Information Administration, a website called chooseenergy.com says that Florida ranks 19th of 50 states for the highest average electricity prices.
A Texas-based organization called Payless Power used the same data to calculate that Florida had the 13th highest energy prices in the U.S., with an average bill at $154.65.
For Floridians who may be having trouble paying their energy bills, a good source to determine if they may be eligible to apply for financial assistance is through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federally funded program that is administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO).
In the fiscal year 2022-2023, more than $115 million in assistance was provided to approximately 175,000 eligible Florida households through that program to assist with home energy needs and costs, a spokesperson for the FDEO told the Phoenix.
The program assists people with restoration/reconnection of home power; utility relocation, deposits, and late fees; installation and repair costs for heating/cooling equipment; and generator purchases and electrical cable protections.
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