State News

Angry customers protest Duke Energy price hike

Posted November 28, 2011 9:01 a.m. EST
Updated November 28, 2011 8:31 p.m. EST

— Customers of Duke Energy let regulators feel their pain Monday afternoon during a public hearing to determine if the state would approve the proposed 7.2 percent price hike sought by the utility.

The higher rates would take effect on 1.8 million customers statewide in February if the North Carolina Utilities Commission agrees they are needed. The average household electric bill would go up by about $7 per month.

Among those who spoke were the "Raging Grannies" who delivered their opposition to the hike in song. 

"Oh, we're a gaggle of grannies, urging you off of your fannies," they serenaded members of the utilities commission. "We demand that you all listen to the citizens today. No rate hike. No way. No way."

Ruth Zalph of Chapel Hill represented the needs of two generations. "It would be hard on me, and it would be hard on my granddaughter who rents an apartment and goes to school," she said.

The rate increase is less than half of Duke Energy's original request of 15 percent on average across residential, industrial and commercial customers. The proposal cleared a major hurdle last week with the endorsement of the commission's Public Staff, which represents consumers.

The company is looking to raise rates by 17 percent on residential customers in South Carolina. 

A company spokeswoman said the 7 percent requested reflects a compromise

"We believe that the settlement we reached really strikes a balance between the challenging economic times and the need for the company to recover the capital investments we make in the electric system," Betsy Conway said.

The company says it needs the money to pay for $4.8 billion in greater employee benefit costs, power plant modernization, environmental compliance, and other construction projects approved by state regulators since 2009.

Gene Nichol, a professor at the University of North Carolina law school's Center on Poverty , Work and Opportunity, said Duke's changing numbers hurt the company's case.

"They have an obligation to prove that these rate increases are absolutely necessary in the public interest," he said. "I don't think they're able to prove anything if they keep gyrating all across the stage."

Duke Energy's last rate increase in 2009 raised power costs by 7 percent, but the increase was spread over two years.

State Attorney General Roy Cooper stood with consumers against the proposed rate hike. 

"A 7.2 percent rate increase is too much for working families and businesses during these tough economic times," Cooper said in a statement.