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Wednesday, 02 November 2011 19:14

Speakers urge state to deny rate hike request

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Economic times are simply too hard, and Duke Energy is being too greedy for the state utilities commission to allow the company to hike its rates, many of the speakers taking advantage of a public hearing in Franklin said last week.

Some 30 speakers used the microphone at the Oct. 26 hearing, which attracted about 100 people from North Carolina’s westernmost counties. A similar hearing drew an overflow crowd Oct. 11 in Marion, the only other forum focused on the hike that was held in Western North Carolina.

Duke Energy wants to raise residential rates 17.4 percent and, on average, raise commercial rates by 15 percent. The increase, which would take effect in February, would add about $19 a month to the typical residential customer’s bill of about $97.

Three-fourths of the increase would help pay for $4.8 billion for building new power plants and for pollution-control equipment to help the environment.

Duke District Manager Fred Alexander told the commission the increase in rates is necessary to help Duke continue providing the “vital service” of electricity.

“I’m here tonight appealing to you on the behalf of the clients that we have at Second Mile Ministry,” said Hazel Finley. “These are mainly elderly people who are on a fixed income,” and underemployed or unemployed people “who have exhausted” their benefits. “I see no reason for Duke to get (an increase) on the backs of these people who are, so desperately, trying to make it one day at a time here in Macon County,” she said.

Many speakers told the commission members of their anger at Duke’s seeking more customer dollars when, in 2010, the company reportedly earned $1.3 billion and paid its chief executive $6.9 million.

With those sorts of profits, “then why does Duke believe that they need to take any more of my money?” Carl Iobst of Jackson County queried the commission.

A rate hike, said Bob Harold of Stanley Furniture in Robbinsville, could possibly take the furniture manufacture under and put up to 420 people out of work. Stanley Furniture is Graham County’s largest employer.

Stanley Furniture pays Duke $1. 2 million under the company’s current rates for electricity.

“It will put us in a very noncompetitive situation where it will increase our electricity bill per year $180,000,” Harold said. “I feel like the rate increase is too exorbitant.”

Other businessmen attempted a softer approach, with Nantahala Outdoor Center’s John Burton in the particularly unenviable position of trying to urge caution about raising rates while not criticizing the very entity that controls the water flow whitewater rafters, and the company, depend upon.

“I’m counting on you guys to vet the proposal,” Burton told the commission. “To make sure … that it’s reasonable. While the rate hike is painful, some of it is necessary to keep doing what they do.”

F.P. Bodenheimer, a Franklin businessman, spoke more directly in Duke’s favor, noting the importance of a good energy supply to power manufacturing machines. In the older days, when Nantahala Power and Light delivered the energy to his lumber-based business, reliability was questionable and the power sometimes failed, Bodenheimer said.

That costs businesses time and money that simply aren’t expendable, he said.

“But, we do have one opportunity that the homeowner does not have,” Bodenheimer said. “We can pass on some of the cost to customers who buy our product … possibly. But for the homeowner, there’s no place for them to pass it.”

Ken Brown of Jackson County spoke both as a Duke customer and as a representative of the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance. Brown noted the lack of competition facing Duke here in the Southeast and linked that to the company’s reluctance, in his view, to offer competitive rates. The energy company’s grasp might just get tighter in the days to come if a merger proposal with Progress Energy is approved.

“In North Carolina, Duke Energy and Progress Energy are conspiring to monopolize electric generation by asking the N.C. Utilities Commission to approve a merger that will squash competition in North Carolina,” Brown told commissioners, a sentiment echoed by Swain County resident Joe Deddo.

Brown also spoke to cost overruns at the controversial Rutherford County-based Cliffside plant being passed on to North Carolina customers, for electricity to leave the state and serve customers in South Carolina.

This, Brown said, would “unnecessarily burden business, industrial, municipal and residential ratepayers with a third rate increase in two years to pay for an outmoded facility.”

Other speakers also had strong environmental concerns and said they wanted to see Duke turn toward more earth-friendly sources of energy.

“I want cleaner energy,” Scott Burns of Franklin told the commission before opposing the rate hike as “outrageous” on Duke’s part to even request.

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