TALLAHASEE, Fla. (AP) - Duke Energy's nearly 2 million customers in Florida will keep paying for the utility giant's now-shuttered and abandoned nuclear power plants for the next several years.
And on Monday, that cost went up higher.
State utility regulators voted to let Duke Energy Florida raise rates 89 cents a month for the average customer to pay for its Crystal River Plant, in Citrus County.
The charge, which would take effect in January 2014, would last up to seven years. It would be in addition to a separate charge customers have been paying to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County in north Florida.
Last week the Charlotte, N.C.-based company announced it was scuttling its plans to build the $24.7 billion plant, citing changes in the energy market and regulatory hurdles at the state and federal level.
The company announced in February that it was closing the Crystal River nuclear plant, located near the Gulf of Mexico. Workers cracked a concrete containment building during an attempt to upgrade the plant in 2009. An attempt to fix the problem in 2011 resulted in more cracks.
State Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, blasted the decision to let Duke - formerly known as Progress Energy - collect even more money for the Crystal River plant.
"Every customer of Duke Progress Energy should be absolutely outraged," Fasano said.
The Florida Public Service Commission agreed to the rate increase as part of a decision to wait until later this year to approve a settlement agreement tied to the two nuclear plants.
Some commissioners made it clear they did not agree with the decision to include the rate increase as part of the agreement negotiated by several parties, including Duke and the state's Office of Public Counsel. The initial filing did not include any information on whether the rate increase was justified.
"I'm still not comfortable with raising customer rates without one shred of evidence in the record," PSC Commissioner Eduardo Balbis said.
Balbis also questioned why the Office of Public Counsel - which advocates on behalf of consumers in utility proceedings - would sign on to the rate increase as part of the settlement.
But both Duke officials and attorneys with the office said there was no reason to challenge the 89-cent increase because it was to pay for expenses permitted under state law.
Expenses normally cannot be passed on to customers until power plants go into service, but the Legislature made an exception for nuclear reactors in the 2006 law. It was designed to encourage the expansion of nuclear energy. That law was changed this past year.
Public Counsel J.R. Kelly insisted that the overall agreement was good for consumers since, for example, it would bring an end to the eventual costs for the Levy county plant.
In the end, all five commissioners voted in favor of the rate increase and to delay any further action on the settlement agreement until later this year.
It means that the charge on an electric customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours a month will be $5.62 starting next January. The charges related to Levy County will last for another two to three years, while the Crystal River charge could last for up to seven years. Duke, however, could offset part of the charge if it is able to salvage portions of the closed plant.
Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Duke Energy Florida, reiterated that the Levy County site remains a "good site" for a nuclear power plant and that the company could still wind up building something there. Duke is still pursuing a federal license.
"It's a good site for nuclear generation," Ivey said. "The economics of the Levy site right now just don't work."
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