Remember these numbers: 1.3 million, 13 and 0. The first is how many Duke Energy customers lost power following Hurricane Irma. The second is how many minutes a Florida Senate committee spent this week listening to a Duke executive describe how well the utility performed. And the third is how many questions senators asked. That's right, zero. Don't hold your breath waiting for anyone in Tallahassee to demand answers about why so many Floridians spent so many nights without power after Irma, how the state could better prepare for the next hurricane or how to hold the utilities more accountable.
Key House and Senate committees held their first hearings this week on how the electric utilities reacted to Irma, whose high winds covered the state last month and left 6.7 million electricity customers without power. They could more accurately be described as friendly receptions. In a state where the top investor-owned utilities spend millions supporting their favorite officeholders and fighting constitutional amendments, it's easy to cash in on goodwill even after a major hurricane.
"I look at a 50,000-foot level at what our utilities did and the incredible job they put together of getting power restored in a minimal time,'' gushed Republican Sen. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, the chairman of the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee. And that was before the committee heard from officials from Duke, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light. The $10,000 contribution from FPL to Bean's political committee in July surely had no influence on his off-the-cuff assessment.
To be fair, the Legislature isn't the only utility lapdog. The Public Service Commission, which regulates electric utilities, is hardly a bulldog. A PSC official recounted to legislators the changes made after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, including requiring utilities to inspect their poles once every eight years, hold annual hurricane briefings and harden facilities. But he also acknowledged the utilities self-report to the commission, and he suggested the PSC won't have a formal assessment of their Irma performance before the end of the legislative session in March. How convenient.
There were a few softball questions. Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, gently asked a TECO official about burying electrical lines given the city's historic neighborhoods. The TECO executive politely swatted it away, citing the cost of roughly $1 million a mile. At the House Energy and Utilities subcommittee Wednesday, a Duke official appeared for about 25 minutes and fielded three nonthreatening questions.
Here are more direct questions lawmakers should ask before the next campaign checks roll in:
• Who should pay for the costs of burying electric lines, and should those lines be required to be buried at least in new developments?
• If vigorous tree-trimming programs are so important to limiting outages, why did FPL and Duke Energy cut their tree-trimming budgets last year, and why did Duke spend $3.3 million less than smaller TECO?
• Why did it take Duke so long to restore power to nearly all of its customers, and why did it fail to meet a deadline it set for itself?
• While a Duke executive acknowledged "challenges'' with its communications system, that doesn't begin to describe the frustration of customers. Its website showed incorrect information days after Irma, and its phone operators incorrectly told customers their outages had not been previously reported. What happened, and how will it be corrected?
Don't give up all hope. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has appointed a special committee on hurricane preparedness that includes Reps. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Sean Shaw, D-Tampa. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has been critical of the tree-trimming spending cuts and has sworn off contributions from electric utilities to his campaign for governor. Perhaps some other lawmakers will find their voices.
But the next time legislative committees meet to discuss Hurricane Irma and the performance of the electric utilities, try this for motivation. Turn off the power to the meeting room for three or four days, sit in the dark with flashlights and see if that sharpens the questions.