Local News

NC towns hope utility merger will ease debt load

Posted February 15, 2011 6:01 p.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2011 6:49 p.m. EST

— Several North Carolina cities hope the pending merger between Progress Energy and Duke Energy will give their residents some relief from high electric bills.

Thirty-two municipalities that belong to the Electricities consortium agreed in the early 1980s to help pay for power plants like Shearon Harris in southwestern Wake County so that they could access the electricity the plants generated.

The move left the cities and towns with $2.4 billion in debt as the cost of building nuclear plants skyrocketed. Customers of the local utilities are slowly paying off the debt through higher electric bills.

"I pay the same thing for rent as I do for lights," Rocky Mount resident Jamiya Moss said Tuesday.

Edna Anthony said she got behind a month and now owes than $1,000, and Willie Williams said his monthly power bill has increased steadily for the last 10 years.

"This bill says $1,785.80," Williams said. "I live just to pay the utility bill. I'm on a fixed income. I don't have extra monies. It's a hardship."

The debt is supposed to remain on the municipalities' books until 2026, leaving them little flexibility over electric rates until then. But some officials say they plan to lobby state regulators and lawmakers to include debt relief as a condition of approving the $26 billion merger between Raleigh-based Progress Energy and Charlotte-based Duke Energy.

"This is, to me, the biggest tangible opportunity we've had in 30 years to do something about this debt being taken off of our backs," Rocky Mount City Councilman Rueben Blackwell said.

The council on Monday passed a resolution to seek debt relief from the companies. Other Electricities members are expected to follow suit.

Rocky Mount Mayor David Combs said lower power rates now would go a long way to improving the quality of life for local residents.

"What we'd like to do is have some leverage and some relief from where we are, and we think we deserve it because we were good partners and have been for many, many years," Combs said.