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Panel to look at electricity needs

The governor wants the new group to examine the state's future electricity needs and the possibility of deregulation.

By AMEET SACHDEV

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush followed through on his promise to create a commission to study Florida's future energy needs, the state's first serious look at the possibility of deregulating electric utilities.

The governor signed an executive order Wednesday to form a 17-member task force that will look at how to supply reliable and affordable electricity during the next 20 years. This will include studying recent changes in how power companies in other states are regulated.

Bush and leaders of the Legislature will make appointments to the commission by July 17, with the first meeting to be in September. The group will make recommendations to the governor and the Legislature by Dec. 1, 2001.

"Florida needs an energy strategy," Bush said in a statement. "Over the next 20 years, the quality of life, the quality of our business climate and the quality of our environment will be closely linked with how we address Florida's energy needs."

Even with a commission, Florida is still far behind other states in studying competition in the electric industry. At least 24 states already have embraced rules giving customers choice of power providers, ending decades-old monopolies. The remaining states have deregulation studies or pilot projects.

State lawmakers have been reluctant to look at competition because of intense opposition from the state's entrenched utilities, which have their profits regulated in exchange for monopoly control in their service areas. But that changed this year after TECO Energy Inc., parent company of Tampa Electric Co., reversed its position and came out in support of more competition in Florida.

Bush's action comes after a bill -- sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and supported by TECO -- to create a similar commission died. The bill got bogged down after Sen. Buddy Dyer, D-Orlando, tried to attach an amendment that would have blocked power plants built on speculation in Florida.

Dyer pushed the moratorium that the state's two largest utilities, Florida Power Corp. and Florida Power & Light Co., wanted. The utilities got the moratorium without legislative action. The state Supreme Court quashed an attempt by Duke Energy Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., to build Florida's first speculative "merchant plant," which chills plans by other merchant developers.

Bush will appoint 13 members to the group, and the Senate president and House speaker will name two apiece. The chairman of the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and the Public Counsel, the state-funded consumer advocate in utility matters, will serve as non-voting members.

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