Duke Energy rate hikes go before N.C. Supreme Court

Attorney General Roy Cooper’s staff argued before the N.C. Supreme Court on Monday that two Duke Energy rate increases were granted without full analysis of their impact on customers.

Cooper is challenging the N.C. Utilities Commission over separate rate increases it granted Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves the Charlotte area, in 2011 and 2013.

In the 2011 case, the commission allowed Duke to hike rates 7.2 percent, or about $7 a month for residential customers.

Cooper, who’s considered a likely candidate for governor in 2016, appealed. The high court last year ordered the Utilities Commission to reconsider the case. When the commission confirmed its original findings, Cooper appealed again.

Cooper’s office challenged the commission again in 2013, when Duke was allowed a 5.1 percent increase that took typical bills up an additional $7.60 a month.

Cooper’s staff argued Monday that the commission granted both increases without adequately assessing the impact on customers struggling in a poor economy. Both appeals focused on expert witnesses’ testimony about the returns on equity, or profit margins, the commission allowed Duke.

Attorney John Maddrey, representing Cooper, said it’s up to the Utilities Commission – not those experts – to evaluate what changing economic conditions mean to consumers.

Even when ordered to reconsider the 2011 rate case, he said, the commission failed to explore customer impacts in depth.

“We contend that what you have here is an indirect, or afterthought (analysis), about the impact on the consuming public,” Maddrey said.

Attorneys for Duke and the commission’s independent Public Staff, which represents consumers, responded that the commission was right to grant both rate increases. Duke and the Public Staff had agreed on terms before the commission approved them.

More than 230 members of the public testified about Duke’s proposed rates during 19 hours of hearings before the Utilities Commission, Public Staff attorney William Grantmyre said. Cooper’s staff didn’t offer testimony from their own experts, he added.

Duke and the Public Staff also pointed to a third Cooper rate-increase challenge, on similar grounds, that the Supreme Court upheld in August. That case was over a 5.5 percent rate increase granted Duke Energy Progress, which serves Eastern North Carolina, last year.

“That ruling dissolves the vast majority of the attorney general’s argument in this case,” Duke attorney Christopher Browning told the justices.