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Price of Power: Tampa Bay area residents struggle to pay rising electricity bills

Rates raised in January; more increases possible
Price of Paradise electricity
Posted at 3:22 AM, Feb 21, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. — The current cost of electricity has Tampa Bay area residents worried about keeping their lights on.

A report just released by Wallet Hub found Tampa Bay has the highest inflation rate in the country — including everything from food to utilities.

“We're looking at my bill that I just got in the mail... on here it’s my current charges, but it was worth $449, and within a week, I got a new bill for $2,360,” said St Petersburg resident Tammy McMullen, who rents a house in Coquina Key and has fallen several months behind on her electricity bill.

“It says installment plan ending balance $1,351. That's installment plan. Keep in mind my bill was $950. I had agency help with $500, so I'm trying to figure out how do they jump from $449 to $2,300,” she said in disbelief.

Duke Energy put her on what they call an installment plan which spreads out a larger bill over several months in addition to that month’s current bill.

McMullen is part of the 17% of U.S. households that the Bank Of America Institute found either missed or made late payments on utilities in 2022.

The monthly bills are getting out of control, and a lot of people have told me the same thing,” said Kim Zeches, who also rents a small home in St Pete. “Duke Energy, I've been on budget billing with them, and I was paying $147 to $149 a month, which was, I thought it was reasonable, but then it jumped up to $245.”

Duke’s budget billing is another program aimed at helping reduce seasonal spikes in usage by spreading payments out evenly based on estimated usage from the year prior and adjusting every few months.

A closer look at Zeches bills shows charges exceeded payment predictions starting in October, pushing her further and further behind. Now she’s paying double her previous bill every month.

According to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, U.S. consumers paid about 14% more for electricity in 2022. In Tampa Bay, it was almost 22% more.

This is largely due to the cost of natural gas skyrocketing in the last year for three main reasons:

  1. The war in Ukraine increased the demand for liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
  2. Higher than normal temperatures across the U.S.
  3. A prolonged outage at a liquid natural gas facility in Texas

Natural gas prices have continuously increased and really fluctuated throughout the last 18 months,” explained Ana Gibbs, a spokesperson for Duke Energy based in St Petersburg.

Electric companies across the country raised rates this year.

In Florida, starting January 2023:

  • Duke Energy rates went up about 13% 
  • Tampa Electric rates have jumped 11% 
  • Florida Power And Light also rose roughly 8%

On average, customers are going to see about a $27 difference from approximately one year ago,” Gibbs explained. The dollar amount refers to the average 1,000 kilowatts used.

Ceiling fan

Duke Energy, like other power companies, encourages customers to call if they can’t afford a bill.

We help connect our customers through agencies who help provide financial assistance,” Gibbs said.

But both McMullen and Zeches said the community resources have only been able to help so much.

I’ve been calling different agencies. A lot of them help like with $50, and a lot of them don't have any financial money to give,” McMullen exclaimed.

We asked Duke at what point would they shut someone’s power off.

Gibbs said, “disconnect for non-pay is a last resort. We try every way to help our customers either connect with assistance or provide installment plans, so we can basically avoid a disconnect.”

We also reached out to the Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC), which regulates power companies in the state. We asked about their efforts to help Floridians with the rising cost of electricity.

A spokesperson referred us to a document explaining their thorough review process and clarifies the charges are to recover the costs spent by the companies, not for a profit.

When it comes to fuel and purchased power charges, the document reads: “The FPSC annually conducts a public hearing to review the fuel and purchased power costs of the four utilities. Charges are established to recover the costs found to be reasonable but these costs do not include a return or profit.”

The encouraging news for consumers is that the winter hasn’t been as cold as expected, which means prices for natural gas are going down.

Two things you can do to lower your electricity bill:

  1. Monitor your usage — turn off lights and TVs when you’re not home and try not to drastically cool or heat your residence. 
  2. Ask your utility company to come and do a free or low-cost energy audit to evaluate homes and buildings 

Solar panels are also an option to help save on your bill. Companies often offer net metering for customers with solar panels, where they are credited back for energy they produce but don’t use. Click here to read more in-depth about solar panels

Solar panels are also a method companies are using to help reduce their costs.

Duke Energy’s website explains: “Duke Energy Florida is already passing approximately $56 million of corporate tax savings annually to customers from the Inflation Reduction Act. For residential customers this resulted in a decrease of $1.90 per 1,000 kilowatt-hours beginning in January 2023. Additionally, the company is refunding customers another $11.7 million in tax savings from 2022 solar generation.”

Powered on lights

Unfortunately, the price of paradise isn’t letting up. Despite tax breaks from the national Inflation Reduction Act, Florida companies have more requests for rate increases filed with the FPSC. The companies state they need more revenue to recover 2022 fuel costs as well as impacts from restoring power after Hurricanes Ian and Nicole.

If approved, these increases could equate to about a 10% monthly increase for TECO customers and a 20% increase for Duke Energy customers starting in April of 2023. A decision should come in March.

FPSC’s spokesperson said a utility company should be a resident’s “first line of relief.” The commission does provide a form for customers to file utility complaints. Click here to file a complaint.

Below you will find links to the company’s payment assistance pages:

Below is information on community resources that may be able to help with utility bills:

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assists low-income households in meeting immediate home energy needs. The program provides grants directly to local county governments and non-profit agencies that then determine who will receive assistance. Applicants apply within the county they reside. For more information, call 1-866-674-6327. Visit their Web site at www.floridajobs.org/community-planning-and-development/communityservices/low-income-home-energy-assistance-program.

The Emergency Home Energy Assistance for the Elderly Program (EHEAP) assists low-income households with at least one person age 60 and older experiencing a home energy crisis. For more information on additional eligibility requirements, call the Elder Helpline at 1-800-96-ELDER (1-800-963-5337). Visit their Web site at www.elderaffairs.org.

FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program was created by Congress to help meet the needs of hungry and homeless people throughout the United States and its territories by allocating federal funds for the provision of food and shelter. Contact the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program at (703) 706-9660, or fax to (703) 706-9677. Visit their Web site at www.fema.gov.

Share is a TECO program that provides utility bill assistance to qualifying customers. Share is administered by the Salvation Army and the Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg.

County-specific help:

Pasco

  • Neighborhood Care Center – Zephyrhills
    • 813.780.6822
  • Pasco County Social Services
    • 352.521.4274
  • Salvation Army - West Pasco
    • 727.847.6321
  • St. James Catholic Church
    • 727.862.8580
  • St. Vincent DePaul – Our Lady Queen of Peace Church
    • 727.845.4955
  • United Way of Pasco County
    • 727.845.3030

Pinellas

  • Catholic Charities, Diocese of St. Petersburg Financial Assistance - Pinellas County | Providing help. Creating hope. (ccdosp.org)
    • 727.893.1313
  • Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services
    • 727.479.1800
  • Hope Villages of America
  • Salvation Army of St. Pete
    • 727.821.9123 or 727.822.4954

Polk

  • Family Emergency Service
    • 863.294.1939
  • Lake Wales Care Center
    • 863.676.6678
  • Frostproof Care Center
    • 863.635.5555
  • United Way Central Florida
    • 863.648.1500

Seminole

  • Heart of Florida United Way
    • 211 if calling from Orange, Osceola or Seminole County;
    • 407.839.4357 if calling from outside of above areas or a cellphone.

Sumter

  • Sumter Ministerial
    • 352.748.1022
  • St. Vincent DePaul Society
    • Callers from Wildwood should call 352.689.0129. Callers from Lady Lake and Leesburg should call St. Timothy's at 352.753.1455.

Daystar Life Center and Directions For Living may also be helpful with housing, utilities, and financial literacy.

To read more about how consumers nationwide are feeling about paying household bills, click here.

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF PARADISE?
As Tampa Bay continues to attract new residents and businesses, the impact of living in paradise comes at a cost for all of us— from the increasing cost of housing and infrastructure to utilities and insurance. ABC Action News is committed to helping you and your family make the most of your money and navigate through the Price of Paradise.