Opponents of Duke Energy’s request for a proposed 6% rate increase in Western North Carolina dominated a public hearing in Charlotte on Thursday night.
Even before the hearing got started, activists from several groups protested outside the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, chanting slogans like, "Duke gets bailed out, we get sold out!" and "Their pockets get thicker, our children get sicker!"
Kate Lewin is a local high school student and a climate activist. She came to the protest and attended the public hearing afterward because she doesn’t like Duke’s reliance on fossil fuels.
"Duke is the kind of company that’s a huge part of what’s driving the climate crisis," Lewin said. "And that’s destroying so many people’s homes and lives, and it’s only going to do more."
Inside the courtroom, there were at least 60 people who filled the benches. Members of the North Carolina Utilities Commission sat in front of them. They're the regulators who will approve or deny Duke’s request later this spring.
They listened as more than two dozen people spoke -- nearly all of them against the rate increase. Speakers criticized Duke for asking customers -- especially those with lower incomes -- to pay for cleaning up coal ash, the material left after burning coal. They also criticized Duke’s addition of more gas-fired power plants and its lobbying activities. Allen Smith told the commission a rate hike would shield Duke shareholders from risks the company has taken and financial liabilities, like coal ash.
"It means you’re allowing the owners of Duke Energy, that is shareholders both individual and institutional, to enjoy the financial benefits of their ownership stake in this business while saddling the people of North Carolina with the financial risk," Smith said. "That’s a big deal."
Shawn Elliott Richardson, an activist and minister who lives in east Charlotte, connected Duke’s proposed rate hike to economic inequality in the city, particularly the problem of affordable housing.
"It seems to be a pattern," Richardson said. "Rich, big business people get to do whatever they want to do, when they want to do it, how they want to do it. And that needs to stop."
The rate increase would affect customers of the company’s Duke Energy Carolinas unit, which serves much of western North Carolina, including Charlotte. Residential customers would see a 6.7% increase, while businesses would see rates rise 5.1%, and industrial users would see an increase of 4.8%.
Duke spokesperson Meredith Archie said the rate increase is necessary for investments the utility has recently made.
"And when we look at those investments, we really look at three main buckets that we’ve been making improvements on," Archie said. "As we shift to cleaner energy, as we improve the reliability and grid resiliency, and provide more convenience and information for our customers."
Part of those plans includes retiring coal-fired power plants earlier and building natural gas and solar-powered plants. Duke says it’s also expanding newer grid technology that can restore power to customers faster after strong storms and hurricanes cause outages.
This was the fourth hearing the North Carolina Utilties Commission scheduled for Duke's proposed rate increase. There will be a final public hearing for Duke’s rate increase in Raleigh this March.
Duke Energy hopes to have new rates in place by this summer.
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