After months of dealing with the economic havoc, especially inflation, caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, South Florida consumers have received a bit of relief in recent weeks: the costs of gas and food have leveled off.
Florida Power & Light (FPL), the energy monopoly that serves all of South Florida and much of the rest of the state, has already raised electric rates three times, and now it wants to do it again.
These increases, approved by the state Public Service Commission that has proven to be the company’s puppet, are the conclusion of years of political maneuvering by FPL.
What’s worse: the increases are designed to hurt customers who can least afford to pay more, particularly the elderly.
Under the new plan, some consumers could see their monthly bills increase more than 20% this year. And, if history is any guide, based on the increases seen in areas where FPL has already implemented new prices, the hit to our pocketbooks is likely to be much more.
20 PERCENT INCREASES
This year’s increases come on top of a 20% price increase the company got in 2021, on top of additional rate increases and fees already approved for 2023 and 2024. These rate increases are even more outrageous considering that FPL is the most profitable electric company in all of Florida.
According to one of the groups that challenged the rate increases in the Florida Supreme Court, FPL customers currently pay the 13th highest average monthly electric bill in the United States, among services from the top 50 largest energy companies. The new series of increases will make rates here among the highest in the country.
One of the most notable changes to the rate structure is that everyone in the state will have to pay for 239 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month, whether they use that amount or not. That move particularly hurts people on a fixed income, especially seniors living on Social Security.
A BLOW TO THE ELDERLY
Here’s an example: An 80-year-old couple I know receives a combined income of $1,400 a month from Social Security while living in a one-bedroom apartment in Southwest Miami-Dade that costs $1,200 a month to rent.
With a lot of sacrifice, including forgoing air conditioning in the summer and turning off the lights in their home, the couple has been able to reduce their utility bill to $80 per month on average. After rent and electricity, they have $120 to pay for everything else they need for the month: transportation, personal items, and food.
The rate increase proposed by FPL and approved by the Public Service Commission will leave this couple with only bad options: stop buying medicine or food to save money, or risk possible eviction by defaulting on their rent. They will soon discover that no matter what they do in 2023 and beyond, their electricity bill will increase substantially.
THERE IS HELP IN MIAMI-DADE
This couple is representative of one in five seniors living in Miami-Dade County, according to the latest report from The Alliance for Aging. This organization administers funds from the federal government to help those who can’t pay their electric bills.
The Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program for the Elderly (EHEAP) provides emergency assistance to seniors who find themselves in an imminent energy crisis, such as having their utilities shut off due to non-payment.
While help is available by calling (305) 670-HELP, these funds are based on available budgets, and not everyone qualifies for them.
FPL knows it can get away with causing this kind of pain precisely because it has spent years using its consumers’ money to go against the public good.
FPL’s strategy of opposing and unseating any political leader with the temerity to advocate for consumers is well known. Political consultants linked to FPL used smear campaigns against former Senator José Javier Rodríguez, as well as former South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard (who dared to oppose the company’s plans to put transmission lines at the center of his city) and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (who early in her career asked the company to implement environmental practices at its nuclear power plant). Even in the face of investigations into possible criminal wrongdoing and the departure of controversial figures like CEO Eric Silagy, the company has refused to change its ways.
At the end of the day, FPL has spent decades making sure the Public Service Commission is composed of members who will prioritize corporate profits over consumer welfare. Working cynically hand in hand, FPL and the Public Service Commission timed the latest increases during Florida’s hottest season, hoping to fool at least some customers into thinking high electricity costs are caused by air conditioning, and are therefore their fault.
The intimate relationship between the company and its regulator is so extreme that two DeSantis-appointed Florida Supreme Court justices, hearing a lawsuit challenging the rate increase agreement last week, questioned whether the Public Service Commission had ceded his authority to the company over critical decisions.
Floridians are not so easily fooled. When millions of businesses and families see their personal budgets hit, it will be impossible to hide the bottom line. It’s time to stand up to FPL’s outrageous rate hikes.
Martha Peláez has spent much of the last five decades working on community and public health initiatives to serve the elderly, working with community organizations and international non-profit organizations, and administering programs in the United States and several Latin American countries. She currently resides in Miami Beach.