At a public hearing on Tuesday, January 16th, at the Macon County Courthouse, Courtroom A, the NC Utilities Commission will accept public testimony on the proposed 16.7 percent rate hike for residential customers of Duke Energy Carolinas.
The utility provides electricity to more than 2 million North Carolina customers in 44 counties, including much of Western NC. Public interest advocates say the proposed increase would harm the region’s lowest-income households, and that ratepayers should not have to foot the bill for unwise commitments to dirty and dangerous energy sources.
More than 30 percent of the residential bill increase would come in the form of a higher fixed monthly charge, which Duke wants to raise from $11.80 to $17.79 per month, explains Katie Hicks, Associate Director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “The fixed charge does not depend on the amount of electricity used each month, so it places a disproportionate burden on small households,” Hicks says. “It also makes it harder for North Carolinians with low or fixed incomes to benefit from energy efficiency measures and save money that could go towards food, medical expenses, and transportation, and takes away people’s incentives to conserve energy.”
Over half of the proposed $647 million increase to Duke’s revenues would cover expenses related to closure of leaking, unlined coal ash impoundments across the state — costs which Duke Energy’s own insurers have refused to pay. Duke Energy Carolinas’ sister company, Duke Energy Progress, is currently facing extreme scrutiny of these coal ash charges in its own rate increase proceedings.
Although coal ash cleanup has been the focus of public attention, costs of building new generating facilities make up a significant chunk, as well — over $100 million of the proposed hikes. Most of these costs are linked to construction of a new 750 Megawatt combined cycle gas plant in Goldsboro, NC (east of Raleigh). This plant is part of a push to build new natural gas fired power plants, which advocates say is unneeded given that overall electric demand continues to stay flat and projections have decreased over the last several years.
“As the renewables market increases, gas becomes even less relevant in future energy generation mixes,” says Xavier Boatright, Environmental Justice Organizer with Clean Water for North Carolina. “The main reason Duke continues to tout the benefits of gas is that the utility stands to make huge profits as a partner in infrastructure projects such as the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would pass through some of the poorest counties in eastern NC. The gas plants which ratepayers are being asked to pay for now are being used to justify construction of this pipeline; then, utility customers will also be on the hook for the pipeline itself down the line.”
Duke is also asking NC ratepayers to pay $53 million per year toward planning and pre-construction costs of a nuclear power plant in South Carolina that was never built. Just this year, the utility canceled plans to move forward with the project, which would have been located in Gaffney, SC, just 50 miles from Charlotte and Tryon. It’s one of several nuclear plants halted by the announcement that Westinghouse Electric, a key contractor, had filed for bankruptcy. Westinghouse designed the AP1000 reactors which would have been used at the plant, but many organizations had serious concerns about these reactors, which would have required vast quantities of cooling water from the already drought-prone Broad River. “Why should Western NC residents have to pay millions of dollars for this ill-advised plan which Duke now has to cancel?” asks Hicks.
Western NC customers wishing to speak at the public hearing are encouraged to arrive early. The hearing will be held at 7 p.m. at the Macon County Courthouse, Courtroom A, 5 W. Main Street, Franklin. Written comments can also be submitted to [email protected] (include “Docket E-7 Sub 1146” in the subject line), or to: North Carolina Utilities Commission, 4325 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-4300 (reference “Docket E-7 Sub 1146″).