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Duke Energy's rate hike takes a beating at hearing

Seniors on fixed incomes and moms who fear their kids face environmental ruin dominated the opening of a Wednesday night hearing in Charlotte on Duke Energy Carolinas’ latest rate hike.

Under a proposed settlement filed last week, Duke would accept an overall 4.5 percent rate increase that grows to 5.1 percent after two years. That’s about half of what Duke initially sought. Typical residential bills would go up in September from about $103 a month to $110.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission still has to approve the increase, Duke Carolinas’ third since 2009, and some customer groups haven’t agreed to the settlement. The commission will begin hearing expert testimony in Raleigh on July 8.

As they have in past years, speakers at Wednesday’s hearing attacked the rate hike for its impact on consumers. The North Carolina Supreme Court sent Duke’s 2012 increase back to the commission for review on those grounds.

The senior advocacy group AARP has fought the rate increase on behalf of the state’s 1.1 million seniors, and gray heads filled Wednesday’s hearing.

Retired teacher Phyllis Jones of Charlotte said Duke should help make all-electric apartments for low-income seniors more energy efficient, helping cut their energy bills.

“Do you really want to be responsible for 70-year-olds like me having to skip meals and skip needed prescription medicines?” she asked.

Another senior, Cora Little, said she’s unplugged most of her appliances, cooks only once a week and opens her front door at night to let light into the living room.

“I never had to live like this before,” she told commission members. “It’s like tearing me up on the insides.”

Duke has acknowledged the hike’s pain to customers, but says it has to pay back the $3.8 billion it has spent on new power plants to replace retiring units, and make other upgrades, since its last rate case.

As part of the proposed settlement, Duke agreed to donate $10 million to help low-income customers.

Charlottean Yvonne Pettis recalled a Duke that has offered scholarships and internships to black students, hustled to restore power after Hurricane Hugo tore through Charlotte in 1989 and recently offered to diagnose the cause of her surging energy bill.

“I certainly don’t have money to burn. I’m on a fixed income that’s not fixed high enough,” she said. “If it takes a rate hike for Duke Energy to maintain the level of service they currently maintain, so be it.”

The other line of attack for Duke’s critics has been the environmental impact of electricity generated by coal.

Coal is a major source of pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks, and its ash has contaminated groundwater at Duke’s plants. Duke is also the nation’s second-largest emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Charlottean Beth Henry, a vocal critic of Duke’s use of coal to fuel its power plants, acknowledged the company’s good works. But they don’t offset the threat of climate change, she said.

“The fact that they’re giving money away does not make it OK to have a business plan that’s destroying the future,” Henry said.

Of the hearing’s first 15 speakers, two spoke up for Duke Carolinas. Duke has emphasized its benefits to economic growth and local tax bases, and its relatively low rates in the Southeast.

But its parent company, the nation’s largest utility, turns a large enough profit – $1.7 billion in 2012 – that some speakers called it morally wrong for Duke to ask customers for more.

“When is enough enough?” asked Charlotte small-business owner Tommy George.

Duke Carolinas serves 1.9 million customers, most in Western North Carolina.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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