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Piercing the Veil on the Obscure and Powerful Politicians Who Set the Rates for What Floridians Pay for Energy

The five members of Florida’s Public Service Commission have great sway over what sources energy utilities use to generate electricity and how much Floridians must pay for their power.

You probably rarely think about the company that provides your electricity, unless there’s an outage or you receive a steep bill.

You likely think even less about the politicians who oversee those utility companies. But this obscure group of public officials, often called a utilities or public service commission, has more power over your life — and the state’s contributions to climate change — than you may realize.

The five people who make up the Florida Public Service Commission decide how much utility companies are allowed to charge the public for electricity, a powerful role when Floridians have no alternative choices. Whichever company is the provider for the area where you live has a monopoly for that part of the state, which is a reason why they’re subject to state regulation. Some other states, like Texas, have different structures that allows the public to shop for their electricity provider.

The commission also has sway over what sources of energy utilities use to generate electricity, which has a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. For the Tampa Bay region, a recent report found the energy sector was the region’s No. 1 source of greenhouse gases, surpassing cars and other transportation.

Florida generates about 74 percent of its electricity from burning natural gas, which produces fewer harmful emissions than coal but is not as clean as renewable sources like solar. That’s a greater reliance on fossil fuels than the national average compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which found 60 percent of the U.S.’s electricity came from fossil fuels in 2023, while 19 percent was from nuclear energy and 21 percent from renewables.

While the state commission is largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind for regular Floridians, it’s slated to come to Tampa Bay this summer.

Customers of Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. will be able to speak at several scheduled hearings in Largo and Inverness (for Duke) and Tampa (for TECO) in June as the commission deliberates about the two utilities’ requests to raise base rates for consumers in 2025. Exact venues for the hearings have not been determined yet, but customers should receive notices with their bills.

They are the first local, in-person hearings for Duke and Tampa Electric customers in more than 10 years, in part because of a pause on in-person events during the pandemic, according to Sierra Partridge, regulatory supervisor and commission consultant. For local Duke customers, it’s been 15 years.

Here’s what you should know about how the commission works ahead of these hearings:

Who Are the Members of the Florida Public Service Commission?

They are:

  • Art Graham, a former Jacksonville City Council member
  • Andrew Giles Fay, a former chief deputy to Attorney General Pam Bondi
  • Mike La Rosa, a former Republican member of the Florida House representing parts of Osceola and Polk counties
  • Gary Clark, a former deputy secretary in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection
  • Gabriella Passidomo, who previously worked in the commission’s office of general counsel the Florida attorney general’s office. She is also the daughter of state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo.

All were appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, though some were first named to the commission by his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott. The state pays each commissioner about $150,500 annually.

The commission declined to make any of the members available for an interview, citing that state law prohibits them from discussing open rate cases.

Abraham Silverman, who used to work for New Jersey’s public service commission and now studies regulatory and legal hurdles to clean energy at Columbia University, said people started establishing these commissions about 100 years ago when they realized most utilities have monopolies.

“You would not want to go and negotiate with your power company on whether you’re going to buy the line coming into your house from them or their competitors,” he said. “You see pictures of old New York with 100 different power lines coming into every house ... it looks like a Charlie Chaplin movie. We need to regulate those monopolies for the public good.”

How Do They Make Decisions?

The Florida commission’s procedures partially mimic court cases — there are dockets with records in rate cases that include expert witness testimony and cross-examinations. These months-long proceedings are how the commission rules on utilities’ requests to raise the base rates on their customers. Utilities can avoid the full extent of these proceedings by settling rate cases behind closed doors, which has become common in recent years. The commission must approve the settlement agreements.

Hearings can be filled with technical jargon and aren’t often user-friendly. Because of that, the Office of Public Counsel is a special representative for the public in these cases, designated to advocate for the best interests of Floridians paying utility bills.

Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog group, released a report in 2017 that found Florida’s Office of Public Counsel had a smaller staff than states like Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin, which have fewer residents than Florida. That report also concluded that the state commission routinely sided with utilities on their requests, arguing it has been “captured” by the industry it regulates, costing the public in the process. The commission pushed back at the time, saying it “vigorously stands to ensure that Florida’s consumers receive reliable, safe service at a reasonable cost” and its decisions “are made in the public interest.”

Walt Trierweiler, a former lawyer for the commission and a retired Army lieutenant colonel, serves as public counsel, after being selected by a committee in the Florida Legislature last year. His predecessor, Richard Gentry, resigned roughly halfway into his four-year term.

Prior to Gentry, the office had been helmed by longtime consumer advocate J.R. Kelly, who left after the Legislature imposed a 12-year term limit, at a time when Kelly had been in the job for more than 13 years. Kelly had previously raised objections over multiple rate increases.

“It’s not a secret that the utilities have a great deal of political power in Florida and have been able to get statutes that are beneficial to their interests and they’ve gotten favorable decisions at the Florida Public Service Commission,” said Bradley Marshall, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice who often intervenes in cases before the commission.

How The Commission Affects You

The commission approves utilities’ requests to raise base rates — a major component of energy bills. It also approves requests to raise or lower the amount customers are paying for the fuel utilities use to generate electricity. In addition to seeking higher base rates, both Duke and Tampa Electric are asking the commission to lower the fuel costs for customers after natural gas prices have stabilized nationwide.

The commission also approves companies’ requests to build power plants over 75 megawatts, whose costs are also passed on to customers and whose energy sources contribute to how much greenhouse gas the state emits.

Susan Glickman, a veteran clean energy advocate in Florida who’s the vice president for policy and partnerships at the CLEO Institute, a climate group, noted that Duke Energy customers still pay a small “asset securitization” charge on their bills. That’s because of a disaster in which the company’s predecessor cracked the wall of a Crystal River nuclear reactor’s containment building, prompting Duke to shutter the plant in 2013.

“The Public Service Commission approves power plants and when they approve building a new gas power plant, then you’re locking in emissions for the life of that plant, which could be 40 to 60 or more years,” she said.

Silverman said how much responsibility public service commissions have for pushing their states toward cleaner energy depends on whether the Legislature has granted it to them. In the last 20 years, there’s been a movement to have public service commissions not just regulate utilities, but also create clean energy policy. Florida has some laws encouraging renewable energy, but doesn’t have any mandatory thresholds for renewables.

“In a lot of states, you see they take on the character of the governor who appointed them,” he said. “If you don’t have that kind of either political or legislative direction, then it’s very difficult for a public service commission to drive real policy reform because it’s literally not within their statutory authority.”

Regardless of any state’s structure, Silverman said more people are starting to grasp the importance of this historically “sleepy” area of government.

“Whether you’re an advocate who wants to really change the status quo and is worried about climate change, or a retiree on a fixed income, the public service commission determines what you pay, what the system mix is and is in charge making these tradeoffs,” he said.

©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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