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Florida utility regulators to discuss FPL rate justification

Power plant cables and transformers. Free public domain CC0 image.
Power plant cables and transformers. Free public domain CC0 image.

In late September, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) did not provide proper justification for the Florida Power and Light’s 2021 rate increase.

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Now, the PSC is meeting on Thursday afternoon to discuss the next steps and how to respond. The Supreme Court did not specify a timeframe for compliance, but the PSC is working to meet the court’s needs in a timely manner, said Cindy Muir, office of consumer assistance & outreach director for the PSC in an email.

How will this affect rate increases? That’s to be determined by the Supreme Court’s final decision.

How it started

Florida Power & Light reached a four-year settlement in 2021with the PSC that led to a $692 million rate increase in January 2022 and another $560 million hike that took effect this year, according to the News Service of Florida. This comes after Florida Power and Light acquired Gulf Power in 2019, which affected most Northwest Florida residents.

Residents in the region noticed a big difference when comparing their bills. During the winter months, some customers complained of bills double and close to triple their normal amounts. According to the Florida Municipal Electric Association, FPL Northwest has the third highest rate for residential customers among all electric utilities in the state.

Florida Municipal Electric Association

A coalition of organizations including Florida Rising, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and the League of United Latin American Citizens of Florida challenged the rate increase in court. Attorneys from the nonprofit organization Earthjustice represented the coalition.

The September ruling is a win in the “procedural sense,” said Jordan Luebkemann, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice. But it was a big step toward creating more transparency for consumers.

“It declares a new era of accountability,” Luebkemann said in a statement from Healthy Gulf.

Public power

An important piece of making the case against rate increases was hearing from residents who were paying double and even triple their average electric bills before the rate increase.

In Pensacola, residents raised awareness through protests, informative meetings hosted by Healthy Gulf, writing to the PSC, and even driving to Tallahassee to share their concerns at PSC meetings. A Facebook group of over 10,000 is a space for people to share information, and sometimes just vent.

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Sarah Setta has been one of the outspoken voices behind the movement. Encouraged by Christian Wagley of Healthy Gulf, she helped inform her neighbors about the case and how they could make their voices heard as well.

“Some of my neighbors are older and lower income,” she explained. “When (the rate increases) first started, some of them didn’t have the strength to flip their breakers, so I’d help them. I started to get emotional because I was hearing of people who were getting evicted because they couldn’t pay utilities.”

While the Supreme Court decision doesn’t change the rate, Setta said she does feel as if she’s been heard.

“For two years now, we’ve been screaming that this is a problem,” she said. “The higher up we went, the less it seemed anybody was paying attention. This is not going to change overnight, but do not give up.”

Setta said she is committed to this cause “for life,” and she wants others to keep speaking out, too.

“Just keep writing,” she said. “I feel like Andy Dufresne (from ‘Shawshank Redemption). Make it a habit.”

READ: Florida Supreme Court ruling

Bradley Marshall, senior attorney with Earthjustice, said the case is an important lesson in paying attention.

“It’s good for people to be proactive,” he said. “By the time a rate increase hits, it’s usually too late to do much but complain.”

Next steps

Earthjustice attorneys say to keep writing to the PSC and elected officials about your concerns. Any FPL customer can reach the PSC by email at contact@psc.state.fl.us and refer to docket 20210015-El. The PSC will have to decide if they will take new evidence, or use what has already been presented in 2021.

If the Florida Supreme Court decides enough evidence is presented, they will consider whether the rate increase approved by the PSC was in the public interest. If the court rules against the rate increase, that could mean good news for customers, said Marshall.

“It could take a variety of forms,” he explained. “Ultimately, there would need to be some kind of credit to customers — especially residential customers.

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.