SC panel hears from critics, fans of Duke Energy over plans for rate hike

dworthington@heraldonline.comAugust 15, 2013 

Speakers at Thursday’s S.C. Public Service Commission hearing in Rock Hill on Duke Energy’s proposed rate increase presented two different views of the utility.

Duke, some said, is a money-hungry company that will build its profits on the backs of those least able to pay.

Duke, others said, is a responsible corporate citizen which provides low-cost, reliable electricity, allowing York and Lancaster counties to successfully attract new companies, new jobs and new tax revenues.

The seven-member commission listened as 13 speakers commented on Duke’s proposal to raise its rates over two years – 5.53 percent in the first year and 2.63 percent in the second. The proposed rate increase would generate $118.6 million in new revenue for Duke while increasing the average residential customer’s monthly bill by about $10.30 at the end of the two-year plan.

If approved, the higher rates could go into effect as early as September, and the rates could not be raised again until 2015.

Commissioners did not comment on a proposed settlement agreement but did ask speakers at York Technical College’s Baxter Hood Center whether they were satisfied with Duke’s service.

Service outages in Rock Hill due to faulty equipment at a Duke substation were briefly discussed. Since May, there have been four outages that cut power to thousands of city residents for hours. The residents are electric customers of the city, which buys wholesale power from Duke.

Most of Rock Hill’s electricity comes from the Catawba Nuclear Station, which Duke manages.

The commission faces a Sept. 18 deadline to act on Duke’s rate request. The commission’s attorney could not say when the commission would consider information from Thursday’s meeting.

The commission has held public hearings for Duke’s rate request in Spartanburg, Greenville, Anderson and Columbia.

“I hope our voices will be heard,” said the Rev. Michael A. McClain, the southeastern regional coordinator for the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA.

McClain said pressure by Duke consumers at the other public hearings throughout the state was a reason the utility reduced its original request, a 15.1 percent rate increase that would have added $17.38 to the typical residential customer’s monthly bill.

‘Something has to give’

The revised proposal wasn’t enough for several residents who said the proposed increase would force them to choose which bills to pay.

“Somewhere, something won’t get paid and something has to give,” said Deborah Wilson Smith of Rock Hill.

Richard Collins of Fort Mill said if the commission approves the proposed rate increase it should “ask something in return from Duke.”

Collins proposed the commission obligate Duke not to give its executives bonuses or pay raises or give stockholders a dividend. Collins also said Duke should be restricted from a rate increase over the next 10 years and that the utility should decrease rates by 10 percent.

“Remember the little guy who struggles to pay our bills on time,” Collins said.

Warren Currence of Catawba said that Duke “makes plenty of money, you can afford it. I can’t.”

‘We will still have low rates’

Representatives of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce and York Technical College spoke favorably about the utility’s role in economic development.

Rob Youngblood, president of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, said if the proposed settlement is accepted, “we will still have low rates.”

The proposed settlement is the result of negotiations among Duke Energy, the state Office of Regulatory Staff, Wal-Mart, the S.C. Energy Users Committee, Spartanburg Water and the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

The commission is not bound by the proposed settlement.

The rate increase is the third the company has proposed since 2010. Duke serves more than a half-million customers in South Carolina including 31,513 in York County, 13,852 in Chester County, and 20,091 in Lancaster County.

Don Worthington 803-329-4066

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