Sierra Club Sues to Stop FPL's $811 Million Rate Hike

FPL's Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station
FPL's Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station Courtesy of FPL
According to Florida Power & Light, the Sunshine State-based electricity monopoly, the Sierra Club's members are a bunch of extremists. "The Sierra Club is an extreme group, that takes extreme positions," an FPL spokesperson told the Miami Herald last night.

If that seems like an odd way to characterize the Sierra Club — which is one of the nation's oldest and most respected environmental groups — FPL has good cause to be upset with the organization at the moment. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit yesterday asking the Florida Supreme Court to stop the energy giant from raising rates on consumers by $811 million, despite pulling in a $1.6 billion profit in 2015.

"There’s absolutely no justification for making families and businesses pay more of our hard-earned money just so FPL can line its shareholders’ pockets and pollute our air and water in the process,” Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone said in a news release.

There are just a handful of electricity suppliers in Florida. The state regulates them and lets each operate as a monopoly in its given service area. FPL is the only utility company that provides power to Florida's east coast and all of South Florida.

Because the company functions like a full-on monopoly, the state set up the Public Service Commission (PSC) to regulate FPL's actions, including efforts to raise rates. But critics say the PSC has always been stuffed with power-company loyalists.

At the beginning of 2016, FPL asked the state if the company could raise rates by $1.3 billion, claiming the company needed the extra money to build a backup natural-gas power plant. (The company made $1.6 billion in pure profit in 2015.) After a long debate, in which the Sierra Club, the American Association of Retired Professionals (AARP), and others complained, the PSC in November agreed to let FPL raise rates by $811 million.

Rates were scheduled to jump by $400 million this month and then by an additional $411 million over the following two years. The average customer's bill is expected to jump by roughly $10 a month.

But the Sierra Club hopes to overturn that decision through the state Supreme Court.

The environmentalists are challenging the idea that FPL is really making the best decisions for its consumers. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups contend that FPL doesn't actually need a gigantic backup power plant because the company is already one of the most efficient power suppliers in America. Plus, activists say, if FPL were serious about improving its infrastructure, the company would concentrate far more of its resources on solar and wind energy. Right now, the Sierra Club says FPL isn't doing that, and the energy-tied PSC is letting the company off the hook.

The rate hike will improve FPL's profit margin, and green activists say the company is building a gigantic extra power plant to justify jacking up electricity rates for no reason.

In November, Miami state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez scolded FPL for engineering billion-dollar profits by controlling Tallahassee. If anything, he said, FPL should be "demanding a decrease in rates."

FPL's press team, however, has come out swinging at the Sierra Club, accusing the group, which has fought for the environment for more than 100 years, of simply trying to drum up publicity.

"Apparently, they’re more interested in generating headlines and donations than working with the cleanest electric company in Florida and the only electric utility in the Southeast United States to already be in compliance with the EPA’s 2030 Clean Power Plan today," a company spokesperson said last night.

But if FPL is the cleanest power company in Florida, that's certainly news to Miamians. FPL's Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station was caught last year leaking pollutants into Biscayne Bay and last Friday won a brief fight to store radioactive waste perilously close to South Florida's largest supply of drinking water.

Oh, and the company wasted $8 million on an openly deceitful campaign last year to try to cripple Florida's home solar-panel industry.

"FPL should take full advantage of our state’s clean energy potential instead of stubbornly building out dirty, unnecessary gas plants and pipelines that increase pollution and electric bills,” Sierra Club Florida Chapter Chair Mark Walters said in last night's release.

Here's a copy of the appeal:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.