There’s a new era dawning for Gulf Power Company, which begins 2019 with a new owner.
NextEra Energy – based in Juno Beach – announced Tuesday it had completed the deal with Atlanta-based Southern Company for Gulf Power -- the final piece of the $6.5 billion puzzle.
“The transactions expand NextEra’s energy’s regulated business operations through the addition of attractive electric and natural gas franchises,” said Jim Robo, chairman, and CEO of NextEra Energy, in making the announcement last May. “Over time, the transactions will allow NextEra to extend its best-in-class proposition of low bills, clean energy, high reliability and outstanding customer service to the combined customers of Gulf Power and Florida City Gas.”
Purchases of Florida City Gas and interests in two power plants — 100 percent of the Oleander plant near Cocoa, and 65 percent of Stanton near Orlando — were finalized late last year. Plans are to finance the sale through issuance of new debt, including $1.4 billion in Gulf Power debt.
“Compared to many other regions in the U.S., an attractive and expanding underlying Florida economy should benefit Gulf Power and Florida City Gas over the long term; helping provide the opportunity for continued investment and support ongoing growth.”
With about five million customers Florida Power and Light — NextEra’s flagship operation — is Florida’s largest utility, serving much of the state’s East Coast, along with South Florida. Robo says adding the utilities is a good fit for NextEra.
“In addition to roughly 9,500 miles of transmission and distribution lines, Gulf Power also owns a portfolio of nearly 2,300 megawatts of generation assets,” said Robo. “Florida City Gas provides natural gas distribution to its approximately 110,000 customers through 3,700 miles of pipeline that largely overlaps with FPL service territory.”
But not everyone is all smiles over the transaction.
“So there’s really no one looking out for the public’s interest here,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “And in a time when we need more competition, with all the new technology around energy issues, that one single monopoly would control so much of Florida’s utility/energy market.”
While she did not return calls on this story, she said last May the Legislature never gives the Public Service Commission oversight when investor-owned utilities are put on the block.
Another concern, said Glickman, is what she calls FPL’s very tight political grip on Tallahassee through money to candidates and parties. She contends that’s making Florida lag behind when it comes to new projects.
“They have definitely thrown a lot of shade on Florida’s solar market,” Glickman said. “While the costs of solar are coming down, they have managed to create barriers for Florida families and businesses from putting up their own rooftop solar.”
Through the deal, NextEra expands an already large footprint in Florida with Gulf Power’s 450,000 customers in eight Panhandle counties.
“The great thing is, we’re still Gulf Power; we’re still going to continue to serve our customers in northwest Florida the way we have – high reliability, and great customer service,” said Jeff Rogers at Gulf Power’s headquarters in Pensacola.
He adds the local utility will keep the name it’s had since 1926.
“There is a strong brand with that ‘Gulf Power,’ and now even stronger with the backing of NextEra Energy,” Rogers said. “[NextEra] is a great company, number-one in the electric and gas utilities industry, and Fortune [Magazine’s] 2018 list of ‘Most Admired Companies.’”
NextEra, says Rogers, is also the world’s leader in wind and solar energy generation – which ties into a number of projects under the Gulf Power banner.
“We’ve got a lot of solar energy already here on the ground – one and a half million panels – enough to serve about 18,000 customers in northwest Florida,” said Rogers. “We’ve got enough wind power to serve about 132,000 homes. We’ve got a lot going for us in the renewable front, and we expect even more with NextEra Energy. That’s what they’re all about.”
In the statement announcing the completion of the sale, NextEra CEO Jim Robo praised Gulf Power’s work after Hurricane Michael in October caused massive damage in Northwest Florida. Rogers says through such storms, Gulf Power and Florida Power and Light are no strangers.
“FPL and [its] crews have been up here assisting our crews; we’ve gone down to south Florida,” said Rogers. “Certainly they’re very respected as far as storm restoration. What a challenge it was with Hurricane Michael; watching our crews and crew from all over the United States kind of just come together.”
Meanwhile, Gulf Power customers will see rates drop nearly two percent this month, thanks to additional tax savings and lower costs. The average electric bill is expected to drop $2.70, in a reduction approved by the Public Service Commission in October.