Floridians are struggling with skyrocketing energy bills. The implications for energy justice and our climate are enormous. Newly introduced legislation could make it all worse.
House Bill 229, filed by state Rep. Bobby Payne (R-Palatka), proposes tweaking the structure of Florida’s Public Service Commission. The PSC is the agency in charge of deciding how much utility corporations charge Floridians for their energy.
The bill removes specific time-bound designations, thus allowing the PSC to operate year-over-year without seeking re-approval each fiscal year, and removes a check on PSC rulemaking. If passed, HB 229 could lead to less public oversight of the commission’s decisions, increasing the energy burden for millions and greasing the wheels for more fossil fuel use.
Energy burden — the percentage of one’s income that is used for energy bills — is a critical component of energy justice and a way of measuring equity in the clean energy transition away from fossil fuels. In Miami, one in four low-income households has an energy burden above 11%, more than 3.5 times higher than the national average.
In Tampa Bay, one in 10 households spends more than 10% of their income on energy bills. In the most recent U.S. Energy Information Administration reports, Tampa Electric customers pay the second-highest electricity bills in the country for similarly sized service areas.
Increased oversight of the PSC is necessary to protect Floridians struggling with high energy burden — HB 229 takes us in the wrong direction. As Duke and Tampa Electric Company (TECO) rate cases approach in 2024, the public needs more opportunity to make their voices heard, not less.
Rising bills are directly connected to rising seas. Climate-killing fracked gas makes up a staggering 74% of Florida’s energy mix. For profit, utility corporations pass off their infrastructure and fuel costs to Florida residents and businesses, who have very little opportunity to weigh in on the energy choices these utilities make. HB 229 has the potential to remove annual fiscal review and oversight of PSC rulemaking and threatens to increase barriers to public participation, stifling much-needed action to move off fossil fuels.
The PSC has historically worked in the interest of investor-owned utilities, giving into corporate greed at the expense of Floridians. The language of the bill and its implications are murky; while the language of the bill implies less oversight of how the PSC internally governs itself, there’s the possibility that the exemptions could prevent advocacy, providing the PSC with more avenues to avoid transparency and accountability externally to energy customers.
The lobbyists behind the bill also represent the biggest players in Florida power companies: four from TECO, three from Florida Power and Light, and two from Peoples Gas System. Given the ceaseless corporate requests for higher energy rates, any bill backed by our investor-owned utilities warrants heightened scrutiny.
Unfortunately, legislation like this is business-as-usual in Tallahassee. The past few years have seen an onslaught of pro-utility bills pass the state Legislature — from preemption of local efforts to move off fossil fuels to the promotion of costly dirty fuels like “renewable natural gas.”
Meanwhile, the PSC has become a rubber stamp for utility-requested rate increases, awarding, for instance, Florida Power and Light a $4.868 billion rate increase in 2021. Although the courts have ordered the PSC to use due diligence in future cases, the body is still under the supervision and control of utility-friendly Ron DeSantis and his super-majority state Legislature. HB 229 threatens to further distance the body from much-needed public input.
In the absence of state leadership, grassroots groups throughout the state have been turning to local governments to alleviate the energy burden. In response to activist pressure, the city of Tampa released a Climate Action and Equity Plan that draws a clear line between eliminating fossil fuels and reducing energy burden.
Now, advocates are calling for the Hillsborough County Commission to take up the recommendations and pass a Climate and Affordable Energy Plan, transformative legislation that would phase out fossil fuels, invest in energy efficiency and reduce the energy burden. An Affordable Energy Plan — by phasing out fossil fuels — would also have the direct impact of lowering dangerous greenhouse gases that have been contributing to extreme weather patterns and rising seas.
Activism is turning the tide. As we continue to build grassroots pressure, we are ultimately building the political power to fight legislation in Tallahassee like HB 229 that strengthens the utility stranglehold on energy justice and climate progress. Floridians are prepared to fight.
Dr. Chelsea Rivera is a policy organizer at Central Florida Jobs with Justice and a member of the Florida Climate Equity Cohort. Brooke Ward is senior Florida organizer with Food & Water Watch.