Duke Energy's request to raise electricity rates by 13.6 percent in western North Carolina got a chilly response from customers at a public hearing Tuesday night in Charlotte. Some worry about the monthly bill increases, while others say the company needs to share the blame and cost of what they see as past mistakes.
Richie Johnson lives in a Housing Authority apartment building on Prosperity Church Road, and says she already has trouble paying for electricity, even though she's unplugged most of her appliances.
"There is no way with Social Security I can afford 19 more dollars. That's a loaf of bread, a dozen of eggs, and a bottle of milk," she said.
Residential customers would see the largest increase. Duke wants to raise those rates an average of 16.7 percent in its western North Carolina territory, which includes Charlotte. That's $18.72 more for a typical customer.
Callina Satterfield of Charlotte urged regulators to reject one part of Duke's request, an increase in what's called the basic customer charge.
"That basic customer charge hits everybody, but it hits poor people the hardest. They have to pay that basic charge even if they never turn on their lights or heat," Satterfield said.
The company says the increases are needed to pay for construction and modernization of facilities, planning costs for a South Carolina nuclear plant Duke decided not to build, and for cleaning up coal ash around the state.
James Sprouse of Charlotte said neither the coal ash cleanup nor the failed nuclear project should fall on ratepayers.
"It is time they take full responsibility for their poorly engineered actions and stop putting the cost burden on the citizens of North Carolina," he said.
Charlottean Steve English agreed.
"It was 10 years ago that Duke told us coal was cheap, clean and reliable. Only now they're giving us the bill for the coal, because they want us, the ratepayer, to pay the bill for the coal ash cleanup. Turns out it wasn't so cheap," English said.
Rate hike opponents got a key ally last week, when the state's utility consumer advocate, the Public Staff, called for a $289 million rate decrease - not an increase. Satterfield brought that up as well.
"Please listen to the Public Staff, and deny Duke's request," she said.
The courtroom was silent as she spoke, but many in the crowd waved green slips of paper to signal their approval, the visual equivalent of applause. More than a hundred people were in the courtroom, with more outside, and about 50 signed up to speak.
Duke Spokesman Tim Pettit said during a break that Duke's rate request is based on its own calculations of what's needed.
"Any adjustment to our rates will ultimately be up to the commission to evaluate that and determine what rate adjustment might be necessary, as a result of our investments," he said.
It was the last of three public comment sessions on the rate hike. A hearing before the full utilities commission begins next month in Raleigh.