Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Enviro group joins in criticism of PSC

One of the most active environmental groups before the Florida Public Service Commission says recent controversies show the panel is overly influenced by utilities and lobbyists, including former PSC staff and commissioners.

In the midst of electricity rate requests by Progress Energy Florida and Florida Power & LIght Co., three agency employees have been fired for exchanging text-messaging information with utility employees. A PSC staffer resigned earlier this month after disclosing that he and his wife went to a party hosted by a FP&L official.

State Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, and Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, say they will file bills to change how PSC members are selected. Gov. Charlie Crist is opposing the rate requests and has hinted that he may not reappointment commissioners who support them.

But representatives of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy today said concerns about the PSC should extend beyond the rate requests.

The Knoxville, Tenn.-based group is challenging energy conservation goals proposed by seven of the Florida's largest utilities. And the group also opposes requests by Progress Energy and FP&L to recover costs for four planned new nuclear power units in advance of construction.

Group representatives said they face teams of attorneys and former PSC commissioners Susan Clark and J. Terry Deason working for utilities and against policies that would improve energy efficiency. The PSC, the group said, allows greater leeway for utilities to present their experts during hearings while cutting off their witnesses and restricting public comment.

"I think there is something fundamentally flawed with the fact the power companies are able to use rate-payer dollars to in essence advocate for a position against what we think are against their long term interests," said Stephen Smith, executive director of SACE.

Utilities, he said, "are taking hostile positions against making the system more efficient in Florida because they are concerned about lost revenues." requested an interview with PSC Chairman Matthew Carter. In response, the PSC issued a statement by Carter stating that all commissioners had taken an oath to uphold the public trust.

"It's disheartening to see our agency, with its important mission, in jeopardy of losing the public's trust when organizations, such as (the) Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, make allegations -- being vetted through the media--which are unproven," Carter said. "Our record reflects our commitment as public servants to continue our good work for Florida's residents, who need our services, and for the utilities that need our oversight."

Deason and Clark did not return telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

A Progress Energy spokeswoman said the company is proposing to double its conservation goals but she did not address the broader concerns raised by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy about the PSC and utilities.

An FP&L spokesman said the utility at no time sought to inappropriately influence anyone. All lobbying expenditures come out of shareholder profits, not the base electric rates, said Mayco Villafana, FP&L spokesman.

The utility deals with a lot of complex issues and hires experts to advise and represent it, he said.

"Florida administrative law is a very narrow specialized area so it's just common sense that utilities and intervenors would seek to hire from the small pool of experts," Villafana said.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

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