Duke En­ergy eyes in­crease in wake of 2018 storms

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY CASSIE COPE [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com Cassie Cope: 704-358-5926, cassiel­cope

Duke En­ergy is seek­ing per­mis­sion from North Carolina reg­u­la­tors to charge its cus­tomers for costs related to three de­struc­tive 2018 storms.

The Char­lotte-based util­ity said it plans to pro­pose some­time this year rais­ing cus­tomers’ bills. It wants to re­cover costs it in­curred from Hur­ri­cane Florence, Hur­ri­cane Michael and win­ter storm Diego as part of that rate in­crease.

Duke es­ti­mated the storms cost $ 761 mil­lion, with the ma­jor­ity of ex­penses from dam­age in North Carolina. Duke wants to re­cover about $570 mil­lion from North Carolina cus­tomers.

“North Carolina en­dured three mas­sive storms that caused sig­nif­i­cant dev­as­ta­tion and re­quired Duke En­ergy to com­pletely re­build parts of its sys­tem in or­der to re­store power to our cus­tomers,” said Duke spokes­woman Mered­ith Archie in a state­ment. “The N.C. Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion will ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine what’s ap­pro­pri­ate for cus­tomer rates based on a long-stand­ing and very trans­par­ent pub­lic process.”

Duke an­nounced its plans fol­low­ing a rate hike last year for its res­i­den­tial cus­tomers in eastern and cen­tral North Carolina, in­clud­ing in the Char­lotte area. In that hike, a typ­i­cal res­i­den­tial cus­tomer us­ing 1,000 kilo­watt-hours of elec­tric­ity per month saw their bill in­crease from $103.85 to $104.69, ac­cord­ing to Duke.

Con­sumer ad­vo­cates worry Duke will keep look­ing to raise power bills.

“We are wor­ried that Duke and other util­i­ties may con­tinue to seek rate in­creases on a more reg­u­lar ba­sis,” said Al Ri­p­ley, di­rec­tor of en­ergy, hous­ing and con­sumer af­fairs for the N.C. Jus­tice Cen­ter, a non­profit that fo­cuses on so­cial jus­tice is­sues. “And for low-in­come ratepay­ers, these rate cases are just not af­ford­able.”

He said it is fair for Duke to re­cover some of the storm costs, but added that North Carolina needs to do more to help low­in­come peo­ple so they can af­ford elec­tric­ity. That in­cludes pro­grams to pro­vide bet­ter en­ergy ef­fi­ciency for low-in­come res­i­dents, he said.

It could also in­clude set­ting rates based on in­come, Ri­p­ley said. For ex­am­ple, low-in­come res­i­dents could pay less than wealth­ier cus­tomers, he said.

Duke has its own pro­grams to help cus­tomers lower bills, in­clud­ing a “Share the Warmth” project that helps cus­tomers with high win­ter heat­ing bills.

In last year’s rate case, which saw a hike for res­i­den­tial cus­tomers, Duke low­ered bills for com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial clients. That re­duc­tion was in re­sponse to a rul­ing by reg­u­la­tors who called for a net de­crease to bills across all cus­tomer types.

STORM COSTS

Now, Duke says it needs to re­cover hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars it spent re­pair­ing dam­aged equip­ment and restor­ing power dur­ing the three storms that be­gan in Septem­ber 2018.

The storms af­fected Duke En­ergy Caroli­nas, which serves west­ern North Carolina and parts of South Carolina, in­clud­ing the Up­state.

Heavy dam­age also oc­curred in Duke En­ergy Progress ter­ri­tory, which in­cludes eastern North Carolina and north­east­ern South Carolina, known as the Pee Dee. Duke is separately seek­ing a rate in­crease for its South Carolina cus­tomers.

The most ex­pen­sive storm was Hur­ri­cane Florence, dur­ing which Duke de­ployed 20,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing work­ers from other states.

Florence’s rain and winds left “epic flood­ing and dev­as­ta­tion in its wake,” Duke said in its re­quest to even­tu­ally charge cus­tomers for the storm costs. About 1.8 mil­lion Duke cus­tomers in North Carolina and South Carolina were af­fected by the storm, the com­pany said.

Dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Florence, Duke said it had about 222 miles of downed wire, 5,770 downed poles and 2,200 dam­aged trans­form­ers across the Caroli­nas.

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WE ARE WOR­RIED THAT DUKE AND OTHER UTIL­I­TIES MAY CON­TINUE TO SEEK RATE IN­CREASES ON A MORE REG­U­LAR BA­SIS. AND FOR LOW-IN­COME RATEPAY­ERS, THESE RATE CASES ARE JUST NOT AF­FORD­ABLE.

Al Ri­p­ley, di­rec­tor of en­ergy, hous­ing and con­sumer af­fairs for the N.C. Jus­tice Cen­ter

ROBERT WIL­LETT rwil­[email protected]­sob­server.com

Util­ity crews work in Have­lock atop an ex­tra tall tower on Sept. 18 to re­store power af­ter Hur­ri­cane Florence knocked out power.

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