Duke Energy bill to change how rates are set marches forward at General Assembly

Bill has changed, but critics still pan it as watchdog rolls out analysis of $3 million in campaign donations.

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Duke Energy in downtown Raleigh. Photo taken August 17, 2018.
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — A major bill backed by Duke Energy, which would change the way electricity rates are set in North Carolina, continued its advance at the statehouse Tuesday.
Senate Bill 559 has morphed a bit since it cleared the state Senate last month, but critics continued to bash it Tuesday as a giveaway for the energy giant, boosting profits at customers' expense across the state.

The bill would let the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which approves rate increases for Duke and other regulated monopolies, sign off on multi-year increases instead of relying on the more routine rate reviews that have largely become annual affairs. An attorney for the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association told lawmakers Tuesday that Duke "would be able to pocket over $140 million a year" more if the legislation passes, based on his group's analysis.

Duke's deputy general counsel didn't dispute that math, but he said it relies on too many optimistic assumptions for the company. Things like the weather, customer usage and interest rates would all have to be "completely in my favor for the entire 12 months" to hit that mark, company attorney John Burnett said.

"It just doesn't seem realistic," he said.

Duke and its supporters at the General Assembly have pitched the bill as a way to modernize North Carolina's antiquated rate-making system, which requires frequent deep dives from regulators that cost millions of dollars as the company and various other groups – and their attorneys and industry experts – go back and forth over fair electric rates in a courtroom setting before the state's appointed Utilities Commission.

Even critics have conceded that the process could be modernized, but they called Tuesday for a slowdown on a bill originally written largely by the company – and heavily lobbied by it since. A representative from Parkdale Mills in Gastonia, a yarn company that uses large amounts of electricity, told lawmakers the bill would "seriously damage" the company's global competitiveness by increasing costs.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, perhaps the legislature's biggest environmentalist, tried to change a key section of the bill Tuesday into a study to slow it down. The effort failed, and the bill moved through committee on a bipartisan vote. It may come to the House floor later this week.

Separately, a long-time government watchdog in the state released an analysis Monday that put campaign contributions to legislators from Duke, Dominion Energy and their subsidiaries at more than $3 million in the past decade.

"The leading promoters of S-559 are among the top recipients of these PAC contributions, including Sen. Phil Berger ($137,400), Sen. Dan Blue ($52,800), Rep. Tim Moore ($92,800) and Rep. David Lewis ($61,450)," said Bob Hall, who retired in recent years from Democracy North Carolina.

Hall also said that the 21 senators who voted against this bill last month got an average of $3,248 from the energy company PACs. He said those who voted for had gotten an average of $19,857 in campaign donations.


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