Duke Energy customers lashed out at the utility’s plans to hike rates in the Charlotte region during a public hearing Thursday night in front of a regulator weighing the company’s request.
People packed a courtroom at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, many of them blasting Duke’s proposal to raise bills by 13.6 percent on average for residential, commercial and industrial customers. The biggest increase would be borne by residents, whose rates would rise 16.7 percent under Duke’s first rate proposal for central and western North Carolina since 2013.
Ratcheting up the frustration is Duke’s plan to have ratepayers cover high costs connected to the company’s coal ash storage sites.
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Of the $647 million Duke is seeking from customers, about $336 million is tied to coal ash. Critics on Tuesday bashed Duke over the fact that more than half the proposed increase in bills is intended for ash costs, including to close ash sites – which state lawmakers ordered Duke to shutter after a 2014 ash spill into the Dan River.
“If the commission assigns these costs to the people of North Carolina, it is the equivalent of rewarding Duke for negligent management,” Charlotte resident Brian Kasher said at the North Carolina Utilities Commission hearing. “The commission should not reward Duke for failing to undertake proper due diligence, maintenance and care on its coal ash repositories,” he said.
Other customers said the higher rates would be hard to afford for people on fixed incomes.
Yvette Baker of Charlotte said she was given a defibrillator last year due to a heart condition and has faced higher medical costs as a result of her disability.
“It’s very challenging to pay bills once a month on a fixed income with a teenage girl,” said Baker, who is on Social Security disability benefits. “So to ask me to come up with an extra 20 or so dollars more a month is a hardship on me.”
Earlier in the day, protesters held a rally outside Duke’s headquarters tower on South Tryon Street. Some held signs that said “No rate hikes for dirty energy” and “We don’t want to pay for Duke’s pollution.”
“We don’t think it’s right that the ratepayers, the customers, have to pay for the coal ash cleanup,” said Mary Anne Hitt, national director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, who flew in from West Virginia to attend the rally and public hearing.
“We think Duke as a multibillion-dollar corporation … should be the ones with the responsibility for covering the cost of the cleanup,” she said. “The dangers of coal have been known for years. They disposed of it improperly. … The regular hardworking moms and dads of North Carolina didn’t dispose of this coal ash improperly, Duke Energy did.”
Luis Rodriguez, a Charlotte-based member of the Beyond Coal Campaign, also said Duke was aware of the risks that came with coal ash.
“They are clearly culpable,” he said. “And for them to try and put this onto the backs of ratepayers, onto the backs of the people who can least afford to pay this – seniors, low income, people already struggling with two or even three jobs – when they’re posting (large) profits, is pretty egregious. It’s pretty flagrant.”
The North Carolina Utilities Commission, which has final authority over the rate request, has held public hearings throughout the state as part of the process for evaluating such requests. Next month, the commission is scheduled to hear from Duke representatives and other experts before issuing a ruling.
Among those raising concerns Tuesday about higher bills was the North Carolina AARP. In a statement, the organization said it has been hearing from older adults across the state who are deeply concerned about the impact of a large rate hike.
Ever bigger names have lined up against Duke’s request for higher rates. This month, tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google voiced their opposition. All three are Duke customers and operate big data centers in North Carolina towns.
Duke meanwhile has continued to defend its request, which also includes increasing customer bills to recoup costs the company said it has incurred to modernize the state’s electric grid and make it more reliable.
As for coal ash, Duke has noted that its shareholders, not ratepayers, will bear the costs of coal ash fines and cleanup costs from the Dan River spill.
Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks told the Observer Tuesday the company was looking forward to what customers would say at the hearing, which he called an important part of the rate-making process.
“We don’t take any rate increase lightly, and we only make these proposals when necessary,” he said. “We have to balance the affordability of electricity with the necessity of making smart investments to make service reliable and to keep us moving toward a smarter energy future.”
It’s not unusual for the regulator to approve rates that are lower than what a utility initially proposed. Among factors the commission must consider this year: A recommendation by the state agency that advocates for utility customers that Duke actually cut its rates, rather than increase them.
That agency, the Public Staff of the commission, cited among other things last month’s federal tax overhaul, which slashes what companies pay on their profits from 35 percent to 21 percent.
Public Staff officials have said any savings utilities see from the lower corporate tax rate should be given back to customers.
“They’ve got one huge tax break. Where’s all that money going?” said Cleveland County resident Roger Hollis, who attended the rally and hearing. Hollis said it’s ridiculous that Duke wants to raise rates, and that customers on fixed incomes will struggle with the higher bills.
“In our area there’s a lot of people that’s on Social Security,” he said. “They want to raise rates on people that can barely make it on $1,200 a month. They can’t afford it. If they raise it 50 cent, they’re going to know it.”