Pensacola for Public Power turns heat up on FPL
Residents unhappy with the takeover of Gulf Power Company by Florida Power and Light — and what they believe could be substantial hikes in their power bills — gathered last week outside Pensacola City Hall.
FP&L completed placing Gulf Power and its nearly half-a-million customers under its umbrella in January, about three years after acquiring the utility. Sarah Brummett with the group Pensacola for Public Power says a feasibility study is part of their multi-pronged goals.
“So while we do have the goal of asking the city of Pensacola to conduct this study and to potentially shift to locally-provided energy, we also have to really call on our state and local leaders to look at the crisis when it comes to these extremely high bills,” said Brummett.
“Folks can’t really afford that.”
The Pensacola City Council is said to be mulling over spending $30,000 to conduct such a study.
Other calls being made by PPP include a moratorium on power shutoffs; emergency action by state leaders to reduce rates; and some robust assistance programs to help those having problems paying their bill.
“And I’m not just talking about, in this case, people who got behind just because of COVID or another crisis, but just they can’t pay these bills, and a lot of people can’t,” said Brummett. “The people who have demonstrated a very high increase in their bills should be able to access assistance.”
Beyond that, Brummett would like to see additional resources to weatherize homes to reduce the amount of electricity, especially during the hot Panhandle summers.
“That’s when most people’s bills get very, very high; so if we’re facing this crisis right now, I can only imagine what we’re going to see in June, July, and August,” she said. “There needs to be resources to help folks keep their homes at a livable temperature without having to use as much electricity.”
According to data collected by PPP, there are 32 publicly-owned utilities in Florida, which are said to charge an average of 10 to 12% less for power than privately-owned firms such as Florida Power and Light.
“A company like Florida Power and Light, there’s multiple CEOs, multiple executives drawing million-dollar salaries,” Brummett claims. “That money’s not staying in our communities, and it’s being reflected in our [power] bills. So if we could take out those corporate middlemen and keep the power in our community and keep the money in our community, we could see that reflected on our bills.”
“Certainly at a time when your materials are as high as they’ve ever been in the material shortage market; when your labor’s as short as it is, now would be the worst time for us to evaluate that,” Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said last week during his weekly news conference at City Hall.
He contends the biggest sticking point for a city-owned power grid is whether or not the city should be allowed to charge more than its current 6 percent franchise fee that FPL inherited when it took over Gulf Power.
"The city shouldn’t be dictated to on what it can do,” said the mayor. “I don’t disagree in a lot of different ways, but at the same time that franchise fee — as I think we’re all finding out — it doesn’t come from some magical place. It comes from the people who live in this community. And it makes power more expensive if we go up on it.”
Such an increase to about 10 percent was rejected by Robinson last summer, while he and other city officials met with Gulf Power executives before the FPL takeover.
“We still had some things that we were dealing with,” he said. “Liability that we sent back. But for the most part, we had kind of narrowed some things down. What came back after that, I thought the legal team at FP&L did a disservice to those negotiations. They really went backwards.”
That deal, combined with what Robinson calls “Business 101” and the city’s existing enterprise departments, form his argument for the city not entering the private utility business.
“One of the biggest principles of business is to ‘buy low and sell high,’ he said. “If we're to buy a franchise and try to build a franchise — at this point — if you think FP&L is charging you a lot for power, the city of Pensacola can probably charge you more. We’ll find a way we can do that. I don’t think that would be productive for any of our citizens.”
“Infrastructure is here; the feasibility study is about determining how we could take over the infrastructure and what that process would look like and what that would cost and how we would manage it,” said PPP’s Sarah Brummett. “I really don’t take at face value [Robinson’s] assessment, that’s it’s because it’s going to be so prohibitively expensive. I think there’s more to it than that.”
Looking ahead, Brummett says they’re planning a grassroots campaign that includes knocking on doors and talking to residents about how they might deal with higher electric bills.
“It’s not something that is sustainable for the working-class people of Pensacola,” she said. “And so we need to build a lot of communication and a lot of unity around this, and determine from there what demands are we going to make of our local leaders and our state leaders.”
More information is available on the Pensacola for Public Power Facebook page. Pensacolians needing assistance with their power bills can get help at cityofpensacola.com.