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Some Northwest Florida customers are unhappy with FP&L's takeover of Gulf Power

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Okaloosa County resident, Elizabeth (last name withheld), says she watches her meter after the FPL rate increase.

Many Northwest Florida residents appear less than thrilled at some of the actions by the firm that took over Gulf Power Company almost two years ago.

NextEra Energy Inc., the parent firm of Florida Power & Light, acquired Gulf Power from the Southern Company in 2019, and officially changed its name to FP&L on January 1, 2021.

“Over time, the transactions will allow NextEra to expand its best in class value proposition of low bills, clean energy, higher reliability, and outstanding customer service to the customers of Gulf Power,” said then-President and CEO Jim Robo in 2018. He stepped down last March and was succeeded by Eric Silagy.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for reelection and appears to be gearing up for a presidential bid in 2024, vetoed one of the utility’s biggest statehouse priorities, that would have curbed the development of a residential rooftop solar industry in Florida.

“Obviously, when you have the prices rising through everything it’s a huge burden on people to be able to see gas bills, energy bills, all this stuff go,” said the governor. “My view is, we want to have affordable energy in the state of Florida. And we’re committed to doing that.”

“I wasn’t even thrilled about that legislation, but it’s OK. It was a start,” said FP&L’s Eric Silagy, appearing at a climate conference in Miami Beach this past May.

Rooftop solar is something that I personally and the company have supported from the very beginning,” he said. “And I have no problem with anybody who wants to put solar on the roof. In fact, I think people should have the absolute right to put [panels] on their roof — as long as they do it safely and then meet electrical codes.”

One sticking point, Silagy says, is the requirement for electric utilities to purchase excess power from rooftop solar at the full retail rate, in effect, paying more for a wholesale product. That’s about four times wholesale, and the customers end up footing the bill.

“This is not about electric utilities not having to pay something,” Silagy said. “I think what people need to appreciate is the fact that the cost of power is a cost of the Public Service Commission’s, our regulators, must actually allow us to recover by law. Because this is a state-mandated requirement.”

Officials at FP&L did not return calls seeking an interview for this story.

Elizabeth — who asked that her last name and city be withheld — said she never had any problems with Gulf Power. But after FP&L took over, her bill went up drastically including a 46-kilowatt jump, literally overnight, last winter.

“My bill was about $70 to $80 a month and it jumped up to $252, and that was just barely using the heat at all,” she said.

Elizabeth has filed a complaint with the Florida Public Service Commission, which has not responded, and contacted FP&L, with the same result. Meantime, she is trying to keep down the power bill this summer, by turning off her central A/C.

“I have just one window unit I’m using and I stay right near that,” she said. “I can’t even let my grandson come and stay with me. The lights are off, and still, for using nothing, I got my bill down to about $108. But I’m not using anything to justify even that.”

And Elizabeth offers this advice to her fellow FP&L customers.

“Physically, watch the meter because that’s how you’re going to catch any mistakes,” she said. “I don’t want to sound conspiratorial, but it seems like since I started doing that I haven’t seen as many mistakes. I made [FP&L] aware that I’m doing this; I just don’t know what to think.”

Elizabeth's bill shows increase in the past year.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Elizabeth's bill shows increase in the past year.

“There are things that FP&L has done, relative to cleaning up the overall profile of Gulf Power, that I think in the long run are going to have some advantages,” said Steve Smith, CEO of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, SACE has offices in seven states -- including Florida. Another major issue is Florida Power and Light’s rate structure. Some of the utility’s customers are said to be shelling out more than what they paid to Gulf Power.

“One of the areas that FP&L could be doing more, that Gulf Power was doing, is actually working with customers to lower their usage through energy efficiency,” Smith said. “Which then ends up lowering their bills, or at least moderating some of the increases. They’re missing an opportunity to help customers manage their bills.”

As far as the future, Smith says in the near term there are some real issues coming out of Europe with the war in Ukraine, and Europe’s attempt to wean itself off Russian gas. In Florida, that takes the form of price increases through fuel charges.

“I don’t see any way around that. Florida made some very big bets — FP&L in particularly — on fossil gas,” he said. “Some of those bets have been good investments up to this point; but now as gas prices start to creep their way up, that may be problematic.”

Smith is quick to add that FP&L is also breaking ground with a “Real Zero” carbon emissions aimed at completely moving away from fossil fuel sources by 2045. That features major investments in solar and storage, along with “green hydrogen” and other projects.

“We’re talking 10 to 15 years out, which we think gas prices are going to continue to be volatile," Smith said. "So I think in the longer term, some plans on the table that are good both economically — and good for the environment. But I think in the near term, the historic commitments to fossil gas are going to see price increases.”

The bottom line for FP&L, and other utilities, is that their fortunes rise and fall with the Public Service Commission. And according to the Alliance’s Steve Smith, it’s falling short.

“You don’t pay a rate, you actually pay a bill which is rate plus consumption,” said Smith. “This is a part of the equation that we don’t see the Florida Public Service Commission, nor FP&L really leaning into and leading on. And I think that could help moderate some of the near-term gas price increases, and it could actually help the overall system be more efficient.”

Some of the repairs to be made by Florida Power and Light are not necessarily part of the grid. The utility is also dealing with negative publicity, generated by reports of an exclusive lounge for lawmakers and lobbyists; and taking over a media outlet to produce only positive stories about the utility.