Customers are 'dumb money' for utilities

If you're a Progress Energy customer and you've looked yourself in the mirror lately, you're looking at "dumb money."

Those aren't my words. That's how an energy policy wonk described customers who get saddled with financial risk when utilities take on nuclear projects and fail.

A good example is this week's decision by Progress Energy, now owned by Duke Energy, to shut down for good its nuclear power plant about 90 miles northwest of Orlando.

A failed attempt to upgrade that plant means you paid for power that will never be produced.

Nearly $100 million worth.

And Progress wants to collect $264 million more from customers for the now-defunct project.

Don't expect a refund.

The Legislature decided back in 2006 that power companies should be able to charge customers for nuclear projects before the projects are completed. And — here's the dumb part — if something goes wrong and the projects are never finished, the law doesn't require customers to be reimbursed.

Wall Street investors and venture capitalists are too smart to take such a chance.

So the power companies turned to us, with the blessing of our politicians in Tallahassee.

"That risk has to be borne by someone other than sophisticated investors," wrote Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in a 2010 article for "And so began the search for the proverbial 'dumb money,' in this case funding from taxpayers — protected by the Department of Energy — or customers — protected by state utility regulators."

If you're outraged, good. If you're fed up and want a change, even better.

Rep. Mike Fasano said Crystal River may just be what this state needed to jolt us from the attitude of complicity that often comes from Tallahassee with every request the big power companies make.

"I feel there's a bit of a change in attitude by many members, including leadership, that this is something that needs to be looked at," he said.

Fasano filed a bill to undo the 2006 law known as "Nuclear Cost Recovery" or, if laws were given names that actually described what they do, it might have been called the "Nuclear Payment Black Hole."

"We would be very fortunate if we can just repeal the law and stop the bleeding," he said.

But chances of an outright repeal are slim even with House Speaker Will Weatherford indicating recently that he's willing to give the law some much-deserved scrutiny.

Expect Florida Power & Light and Progress to pull out some nuclear-strength lobbying to try to keep the law from being repealed.

But perhaps there's a way for it to be changed so that customers get more protection and the utility companies take on some of the risk if their projects fail.

Because this doesn't end at Crystal River. Customers also are paying money each month to help pay for two new nuclear reactors in Levy County that may never be built.