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Wednesday, 10 January 2018 18:33

Duke Energy rate hike request to hurt working families

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Working families in Western North Carolina know that when you earn less money, you tend to use less electricity to make ends meet. When you’re struggling to pay the bills and the mortgage and to put food on the table, you learn to be careful about turning off the lights when you leave the room, and throwing on another sweater before turning up the thermostat. But Duke Energy Carolinas wants to increase our energy rates 16.7 percent — or by $18.72 per month. And with their new mandatory fee, all families would be charged a minimum of $17.79 per month — about $213 per year — even if they never turned their lights on.

On Tuesday, Jan. 16, the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission will hold a hearing at the Macon County Courthouse in Franklin about this proposed rate hike.

This will be the only chance for Duke Energy Carolinas customers in Western North Carolina to make their voices heard before the Commission decides whether we’ll all make monthly payments for Duke’s corporate irresponsibility. I, for one, will speak at the hearing to oppose this rate hike’s dangerous consequences for working families in my region, and I hope you will too.

While I am a former board chair of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance (now part of MountainTrue), I am first and foremost a long-time resident of Macon County. As such, I am well aware of the harsh economic realities in this part of North Carolina. Jackson County and the counties west of there — Macon, Swain, Graham, Cherokee, and Clay — have been named Tier 1 counties by the North Carolina Department of Commerce for 2018. This means they face the highest level of economic distress in the state.

A great injustice of this rate hike is that it is shared equally among all counties, despite enormous gaps in wealth. Take Mecklenburg County, for instance — home to Charlotte and many of the Duke executives who are proposing this rate hike. Mecklenburg County is the eighth most well-off county in the state.

Meanwhile Graham County, just northwest of Macon, is one of the poorest counties in the state. A family in Mecklenburg County makes a median income of $57,000 while in Graham County the median household income is less than $34,000. In Mecklenburg County, 15 percent of households live in poverty, but in Graham County the number of families living below the poverty line is 22 percent.

When Duke talks about their community engagement work, they often pride themselves on their efforts to help communities invest in energy-efficient LED light bulbs and other energy-saving practices. However, with a 66 percent increase of the base charge, this rate hike would mean that energy saving measures would no longer save money; electricity bills would still rise significantly for hardworking families in our region no matter how wisely they use electricity.

This would slam customers close on the heels of a rate hike in 2013, when our base charge rose another five percent. While this increase may be minimal for the wealthy decision makers at Duke, these costs translate to real sacrifice for working families in my part of the state.

It only takes looking at the breakdown of the rate hike to see that we are all being asked to pay for Duke’s past mistakes. Over half of this rate hike — a total of $336 million — would be used to pay for Duke’s coal ash cleanup costs. North Carolina law states that a utility’s costs can only be paid by customers if they are “reasonable and prudently incurred,” and we know that’s not the case here.

In 2015, three Duke Energy companies including Duke Energy Carolinas plead guilty to nine criminal environmental violations for their failure to protect our waterways from coal ash pollution. Even Duke’s own insurance provider refuses to pay for these costs, stating that “Duke failed to take reasonable measures to avoid and/or mitigate the damage resulting from coal ash disposal.”

More recently, it was revealed that Duke knew about the harms of coal ash back in the 1980s and refused to act then to protect our public interests. Now, Duke is trying to stick their customers with the bill, even though they knew about this mess for the last thirty years and did nothing. To add insult to injury, they’re even asking customers to pay for the bottled water that communities near their plants received after their drinking water was poisoned by Duke’s coal ash mismanagement.

Here in Western North Carolina, small business owners and companies with far less wealth than Duke Energy take responsibility to clean up their messes all the time. As the largest utility company in the country, we know Duke Energy can pay for their mess — they only lack the will.

The Public Utilities Commission hearing on the proposed Duke Energy Carolinas rate hike will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16, at the Macon County Courthouse located at 5 W. Main St. Courtroom A, Franklin, NC, 28734. Those who plan to speak should arrive at 6:30 p.m.

Written by Robert Smith, former board chairman of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance (now MountainTrue)

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