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Columns

Light bulbs lighter on the wallet elsewhere

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published November 13, 2006


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Once upon a time, power companies were told to go forth and generate electricity. Just keep the price as low as possible. They were handed monopoly territories because it was decided it was too expensive and inefficient to build competing power plants and transmission grids scrapping for the same turf.

Well, some electric utilities excelled at efficient, low-cost delivery of electricity. Others did not do such a hot job.

Look at some of our major power companies. What they charge for a standard amount of electricity - a basic commodity - varies dramatically.

If you think about it, electricity rates are a pretty good barometer of how well utilities are run. High rates mean the utility has accumulated high costs it must pass on to consumers. Low rates? The utility has kept its expenses down.

A comparison of October electric rates was recently compiled by the Jacksonville Electric Authority. The JEA has compared rates by different utilities for years on a quarterly basis.

The results? Some utility customers get their juice for lights, TVs and computers for pennies. Others must pay in gold.

Sure, some power companies operate where there's plenty of cheap hydro-electric power. But in Florida and most of the Southeast, big power companies rely on the same typical mix of natural gas, coal, oil and, sometimes, nuclear power to power their turbines. Consider:

- Progress Energy Florida in St. Petersburg, west-central Florida's dominant supplier of electricity, last month charged $113.64 for 1,000 kilowatt hours worth of electricity. The average household uses about 1,220 KWH a month. Yet Progress Energy Carolinas, which serves parts of the Carolinas and is owned by the same company, charged $102.23. So for the same amount of electricity, Carolina customers paid $11.41 less.

- Florida Power & Light, which powers most of the south and east coasts of Florida, charged $109.15 per 1,000 kilowatt hours. Yet the Panhandle's Gulf Power charged $93.04. That's a difference in the same state of $16.11 for the same amount of electricity.

- And what of Tampa Electric? The JEA survey did not include this local utility in its comparisons, but its rate at the time hovered near $107.

- In contrast, residents of Atlanta enjoyed Georgia Power's rates last month of a mere $80.81. That's nearly $33 less than Progress Energy Florida charges for the same amount of electricity. And in Jacksonville, JEA charged a modest $88.33.

Not long ago - before Enron's calamity - electric utilities dabbled with deregulation and competition. That ambition has largely withered. And in places like Texas, where some competition exists among utilities, most prices charged consumers are higher than before.

Come January, rates change again and our bills from Progress Energy Florida and Tampa Electric will head north again.

Frustrating how price tags on something so basic as 1,000 kilowatt hours can vary so much among providers.

I'll bet Wal-Mart, which just shook up the generic drug business, could show utilities a thing or two about prices.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

[Last modified November 13, 2006, 09:49:23]


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