RALEIGH Customers and advocates Monday derided Duke Energy’s request for a 7.2 percent rate increase as an example of a powerful corporation heaping hardship on struggling consumers.
Their testimony opened a hearing before the N.C. Utilities Commission that began days after Duke reached settlement terms with the commission’s Public Staff, which advocates for consumers.
Duke has reduced its initial 15 percent overall rate increase request to 12 percent, and then to the 7.2 percent reached last week with the Public Staff.
Commission Chairman Edward Finley Jr. alluded Monday to the public rancor greeting Duke’s request, describing “threats, accusations, profanity and uncivil behavior” at the six previous hearings held across Duke’s chiefly western N.C. territory. Finley chided several speakers whose comments strayed from rates.
Some customers found something to distrust even as Duke steadily reduced the size of the increase it’s seeking.
“Duke Energy has shown itself unworthy of belief,” said Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill’s law school. “Any rate increase it now offers should be rejected out of hand.”
Nichol recited the state’s economic turmoil: 1.6 million residents in poverty, including one out of four children; 20 percent underemployed; median income dropping 12 percent in 2010; and 900,000 additions to the state food stamp program since 2008.
“We hear often from our members that it’s getting harder and harder to get by,” added Bill Wilson, associate state director of AARP, the retirees’ association. “Many are left with making heartbreaking choices.”
Duke needs new revenue largely to pay for $4.8 billion in power plant construction and pollution controls that the commission previously approved. State law allows utilities to recover such costs from customers, although Duke has agreed to defer charging them for a new unit at its Cliffside coal-fired power plant west of Charlotte.
Many customers attacked Duke not only for the increase but for not spending more on solar and wind energy and energy conservation.
“If any increase is granted, it will be taken from North Carolina’s poor to pay for Duke Energy’s agenda to make electricity by burning coal-fired power plants,” Chapel Hill retiree Rosalind McGee said.
Duke has agreed to a $11 million contribution to help struggling N.C. customers through its Share the Warmth program.
The hearing will continue today with testimony from Duke’s N.C. president, Brett Carter, and other utility executives. Large commercial and industrial power users, as well as Attorney General Roy Cooper and advocates for renewable energy and low-income people, also are parties to the case. Some are expected to put on testimony from their own witnesses, while others will cross-examine Duke’s experts.
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