Raleigh, N.C. — State lawmakers beamed Tuesday as they announced a bipartisan plan to speed the sale of power plants, which they said would lower electric bills in dozens of eastern North Carolina towns and boost economic development in the region.
A Duke Energy unit agreed last summer to buy out the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency's interests in power plants formerly owned by Progress Energy for $1.2 billion.
NCEMPA has partial ownership interests in several plants, including the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in Wake County, the Brunswick Nuclear Plant Units 1 and 2 in Brunswick County and the Mayo Plant Unit 1 and Roxboro Plant Unit 4, both in Person County.
Thirty-two municipalities belong to NCEMPA, including Apex, Wake Forest, Louisburg, Clayton, Smithfield, Rocky Mount and Wilson, and the roughly 270,000 customers have complained for years about high electric rates because they are still paying off debt incurred from building the power plants.
State and federal regulators have approved the sale, but Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said the purchase price isn't enough to cover the cities' debt. Companion bills were filed Tuesday in the House and the Senate to allow NCEMPA to issue about $600 million in bonds to refinance the remaining debt.
"We really have a historic opportunity here to address something that has been a real problem in eastern North Carolina for decades," Newton said. "Those of us who live in these cities, these municipalities, have been struggling with these utility rates for a long time."
Residents in the NCEMPA cities usually have electric bills that are 35 to 40 percent higher than if they were served by Duke, he said, noting that he routinely keeps his thermostat at 65 degrees in the winter and still has exorbitant monthly power bills.
The deal reduces NCEMPA's debt load by about 70 percent, and it allows Duke to lock into lower fuel costs, which could lead to lower electric bills across much of the state, said Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash.
NCEMPA's stake in the power plants represents approximately 700 megawatts of generating capacity.
"It's a win for everybody. I don't see any losers in this. It's very seldom we can stand up and say that," Collins said.
Reducing utility costs also will make the areas served by NCEMPA more attractive to new and expanding businesses, lawmakers said.
Newton predicted that power bills would drop at least 10 to 15 percent in the affected communities.
As part of the deal, Duke has agreed to sell wholesale power to the NCEMPA cities for the next 30 years. The cities would continue to own the distribution system and resell power to local customers.