The hulking hunk of steel that towers over U.S. 1, across the Indian
River from the Kennedy Space Center, stands as a monument to one utility's
success -- and another's failure. Come June 1, Florida Power and Light, the
state's largest power company, plans to flip the switch on the state's newest
natural gas plant. The 1,250-megawatt power generator took just over two years
to build and will cost FPL customers $970 million. That's about $130 million
under budget. Duke Energy customers could only wish to be so lucky.
For the $3.1 billion Duke wasted on the now-shuttered Crystal River nuclear plant and the proposed Levy County nuclear plant that may never get built, the utility could have constructed three natural gas plants with more power than both of the reactor projects combined. And Duke would still have had almost $200 million left over to buy fuel for the gas units.
Now Duke, after squandering customers' money on its ill-fated nuclear ambitions, wants to build a natural gas plant to replace the broken Crystal River reactor. That's another billion dollars customers will have to pay.
Critics say the blame extends far beyond Duke.
"The lack of regulatory oversight, the lack of legislative oversight and the lack of planning are costing the state dearly," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has been battling against fees charged to utility customers in advance for new nuclear plants.
"It's a broken system," Smith said. "We're seeing it play out with sort of tragic ramifications in Florida."
-- -- --
It could have been different.
State lawmakers pushed for new nuclear power as a way to diversify the state's mix of energy sources. They didn't want to become too reliant on natural gas with its historic price volatility.
So in 2006, the Legislature passed a law that allows utilities to charge in advance for new nuclear projects. The law has raised money that went toward increasing production capacity at existing FPL nuclear reactors; the same law forced Duke customers to pay billions -- for nothing.
Some Tampa Bay area state senators want the utilities to either move forward with construction of new nuclear power plants or stop collecting customer money for plants they will never build. The senators plan to introduce a bill this week to hold the utilities accountable for use of the advance fee.
Even so, Adam Putnam, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the state's point person on energy matters, and other state leaders remain committed to the idea that investment in nuclear is key for Florida's energy future.
"Nuclear power continues to be a clean, cheap long-term solution," Putnam said.
Yet utilities nationwide increasingly are announcing decisions to trim their nuclear ambitions, including last week's decision by Dominion Power to close its Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin this spring because it was no longer economically viable.
Low natural gas prices, the result of widespread use of a drilling technology called "fracking" that has produced an abundant domestic supply, are making it difficult for any other energy source to compete.
Meanwhile, the natural gas plant FPL is set to open in Cocoa, which has a
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