Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

Residents filled the courtroom as the North Carolina Utilities Commission held a public hearing Tuesday night in Franklin regarding a request from Duke Energy to increase electric rates in the region.

Duke Energy is requesting a rate hike which would increase the rate for residential customers by an average of 16.7 percent; 11.4 for commercial customers, and 9.9 for industrial customers. A typical 1,000 kWh residential bill would increase from $103.96 to $122.68 if the increase is approved. The request was made to help cover costs related to the closure of leaking coal ash plants across the state.

“Duke Energy Carolinas made a request before the North Carolina Utilities Commission to adjust customer bills,” a statement from Duke. “Recent work to modernize power plants and generate cleaner electric, responsibly manage coal ash and improve reliability while enabling more options for customers is at the heart of this request to change customer rates.”

Dozens of residents signed up to speak on the issue, all opposing the rate hike. While the majority of the residents were from Macon County, residents from neighboring counties such as Swain and Jackson also made the trip to Franklin to voice their opposition.

Selma Parks of Franklin was one of the first to speak during the public hearing and said as a resident of Macon County and on a fixed income, she, like so many others, can’t afford a rate increase. Parks said that Duke Energy customers shouldn’t be forced to pay more to cover the cost of the company’s mismanagement in the coal ash debacle.

North Carolina House of Representative Kevin Corbin attended the meeting and thanked for Duke for the services they do provide.

“Duke Energy has always been exceptional in providing service to Western North Carolina,” said Corbin. “We are fortunate that they work so diligently to provide such a high quality of service. If power goes out, or in the event of bad weather, they deploy crews immediately to restore power and are excellent at communicating when power is restored. But I just think that the increase they are asking for is too much at one time, and too much for our region.”

Fred Crawford from Swain County said that because of the company’s poor management of coal ash in the past, which resulted in the third worst coal ash spill in the country’s history, they are having to pay to change their practices. Crawford said he was a stakeholder in the company, understood that profits aren’t always guaranteed and the burden to pay for the company’s mistakes. He said as a stakeholder, he understands the burden falls on him and other stakeholders. Speakers during the meeting said that during the 92 years stakeholders have profited from Duke, they have reported a gain every year.

According to information provided by Duke during the hearing, the rate increase is needed to comply with new federal and state regulations and to safely close ash basins at seven sites in the Carolinas. While Duke says the request is for the future management of coal ash still owned by the company, those speaking out during the meeting said it shouldn’t be the burden of customers to bear. Duke did however state that the customers would not, and will never be paying for the costs of the company’s response to the Dan River coal ash release and the penalties incurred by the company.

“The operation of power plants, including the retirement of the plant, closure of ash basins and compliance with state and federal regulatory requirements that govern our work, are part of the normal operations of an energy company and are costs typically paid for by customers,” said Duke.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is also speaking out ahead of the meeting.

He released a statement saying in part, “Now that it’s more expensive for Duke to clean up its coal ash mess, it wants North Carolinians to pay the price. That’s wrong, and that’s why I oppose Duke’s request to dramatically hike up our power bills.”

In a 77-page filing Friday with the state utilities commission, Stein asks regulators to deny the rate hike request for the company’s Duke Energy Progress territory, which covers eastern North Carolina and the Asheville area.

Stein also wants the commission to reduce Duke’s guaranteed profit from 9.9 percent to 8.48 percent.

For the company’s 2 million customers, the rate increase, if granted, would generate an additional $200 million a year to clean up coal ash in ponds and landfills around its North Carolina plants.

“Duke Energy has known that coal ash was going to be an issue since at least the 1990s, but the company didn’t deal with it. Now that it’s more expensive for Duke to clean up its coal ash mess, it wants North Carolinians to pay the price. That’s wrong, and that’s why I oppose Duke’s request to dramatically hike up our power bills,” Stein said in a statement Tuesday.

Coal ash is the potentially toxic residue left after burning coal. For decades, Duke has stored it in ponds and mounds around its plants. Duke is in the process of closing the sites, some by removing the ash to new, lined landfills, and others by installing waterproof covers and leaving the ash in place.

The Franklin meeting was the first of several meetings planned across the state.  Regulators will also hold public hearings on that request on Jan. 24 in Greensboro and Jan. 30 in Charlotte.

The commission will begin hearing formal testimony in the Duke Energy Carolinas rate hike Feb. 18 in Raleigh.