TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Florida's biggest electric providers are asking state regulators this week to let them scale back energy-efficiency programs -- such as rebates for installing solar panels and power-saving appliances -- that they say have become expensive and benefit few customers.

But conservationists argue that dramatically reducing energy-efficiency programs will only result in higher monthly bills for customers as the utilities eventually will need to build more natural-gas and nuclear power plants.

On Monday, Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power Co. and JEA in Jacksonville began presenting testimony to the Florida Public Service Commission that they should be allowed to roll back energy-efficiency goals, as demand for the conservation programs has declined.

"We think it's in the best interest of our 1.7 million customers to reduce that energy conservation goal and let us look at programs that could benefit the whole entire customer base," Duke spokesman Sterling Ivey said. "It could be a community solar offering versus a rebate to an individual to put a solar panel on a roof, perhaps we can build a community solar array that all our customers pay into it and all would benefit."

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said customers' electricity bills have dropped due to conservation efforts and "slashing" the energy-efficiency programs will simply allow the power companies to make more money.

"This is not in the interest of the public, this is not in the interest of the people," Dudley told the commission.

The hearing is expected to last three days. Two extra days have been set aside next week if the review runs long.

The commission isn't expected to make a ruling on any of the requests until late fall.

Before the hearing began Monday, Dudley joined about 100 conservationists, many up since 3 a.m. as they bused from the Tampa region, demanding the energy-efficiency programs be retained or expanded.

"The opportunity to take action on climate is right now," Kelly Martin, of the Sierra Club, said during a pre-hearing rally outside the Public Service Commission building. "Climate change is not some far off thing in the future. Severe weather, extreme weather is happening right now on our doorsteps."

Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, said the proposal will "effectively eliminate energy efficiency programs in Florida" as FPL seeks to expand its nuclear plants in South Florida and Duke is planning a new natural-gas plant in Citrus County.

"The utilities feign that their concern is for poor people in our communities," Glickman said. "If the concern was for poor people why don't they help them lower their bill by offering cost-effective energy efficiency?"

Utility officials say the economic advantage of conservation has waned as natural gas has grown in use. Also, government efficiency rules have resulted in more energy-efficient construction and in people using products such as lower emitting light bulbs.

Currently Duke Energy charges residential customers $4.02 per 1,000 kilowatt hours on monthly bills for environmental programs, including energy efficiency. FPL has a similar monthly charge of $3.37 per 1,000 kilowatt hours.

If the Public Service Commission approves FPL's full proposal, company spokeswoman Alys Daly estimated the savings on a typical bill would be about $1 a month.

State Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, whose office represents consumers in utility issues, said some of the proposals are "extremely low" and expects the commission to find a middle ground in its decisions.

"We're very cognizant of the impact of rates on our constituents," said Kelly, whose office is taking a limited role in the hearings. "You have some of my clients want all the conservation in the world and don't care what the rates are. I've got others, seniors, low income, that say, 'Look I just can't conserve anymore, so don't make my rates go up.' "

Last year, Duke spent $1.4 million for solar programs that were approved for about 150 of its 1.7 million customers.

In the past three years, FPL’s solar installation program has been used by 916 of its 4.7 million customers at a cost of $16.5 million.