The North Carolina Utilities Commission held a public hearing at the Richmond County Courthouse Wednesday night in Rockingham to hear the public’s reaction to a rate hike proposed by Progress Energy Carolinas, Inc.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission received an application from Carolina Power & Light Company, doing business as Progress Energy Carolinas, Inc., requesting authority to adjust and increase its rates for retail electric service in North Carolina.
In this application, the company is requesting authority to increase its rates and charges to produce additional overall annual North Carolina retail base revenues of approximately $387 million, an increase of around 12 percent over current revenues. The company serves nearly 1.5 million retail customers in North and South Carolina.
At the meeting, which was held like a court proceeding, several members of the community were able to give testimony to the Utilities Commission. They were asked not to ask questions, and to only give short statements about the rate hike.
The first speaker was Rev. J.F. Kearns of Marston, who spoke on behalf of the Marston community. He said among 30 households, nearly 90 percent were retired.
“They are already having a difficult time paying their bills,” said Kearns. “I think that a rate hike at this time would be devastating. That being said, I hope the rate hike helps Progress Energy sleep good tonight.”
Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue said he agreed with Kearns.
“I know it takes a lot of money to run those large energy complexes, but in tough economic times, people can hardly buy food,” said Blue. “We have about 800 people in Dobbins Heights, many of them are retired or disabled. Most of them are on fixed incomes. How can they pay their bills? It’s the difference between eating, paying for medication or paying their power bills.”
Charlene Morrow of Rockingham said she was speaking on behalf of her neighbors and friends in Rockingham who were struggling economically.
“I’m a customer of Progress Energy,” said Morrow. “I’m on a fixed income. I’m 66 years old and I worked all my life but I don’t get retirement from any company I ever worked for. All my life I paid into Social Security. My monthly income is less than $1,500 and I have to pay my drug plan, gas is over $3.50, and I have property taxes to pay. Today I got my power bill and it was $135. That’s groceries at my house for two weeks. Unemployment in this county is in the double digits. I know I’m speaking for my neighbors and friends in Rockingham who wonder from month to month where the money is going to come from.”
Richmond Community College’s President Dale McInnis praised the partnership the school has developed with Progress Energy and said he was proud of the innovative curriculum that has been created around teaching substation relay technology, which the college identified a need for.
“This is a field no one else in the Southeast has and since last year our enrollment has tripled,” said McInnis. “We’re trying to match (power company) employers needs and now we are hearing from other employers like contractors. These are high paying, mobile jobs. Progress Energy has made a positive investment with us and we have a strong partnership.”
McInnis was the only speaker who addressed the commission who did not mention the proposed rate hike.
The non-profit advocacy group Progress N.C. is raising concerns about whether or not people will hold Gov. Pat McCrory accountable for a potential conflict of interest that they said is rising from the proposed rate increase.
“Remember, Gov. McCrory worked at Duke Energy for almost three decades,” said Gerrick Brenner of Progress N.C. “We also know that Gov. McCrory owns thousands of dollars in Duke Energy stock and rate hikes will improve the stock price.”
According to Brenner, Senate Bill 10, a measure making its way through the state legislature, would fire all existing members of the State Utilities Commission and give Gov. McCrory the power to appoint a whole new board. Brenner said SB10 has been roundly criticized by independent observers and said the Charlotte Observer called it “one of the more blatant power grabs in state history” and the Greensboro News & Record said it was a “shameless, disruptive attempt to grab power.”
“This sweeping, unprecedented power grab by a power mad group of state lawmakers and the Governor would place special interests above the interests of regular citizens and electricity ratepayers,” said Brenner. “The biggest winner would be the state’s leading power company, a major campaign contributor and former McCrory employer, Duke Energy.”
Meanwhile, North Carolina AARP Director Doug Dickerson is concerned about seniors living on fixed incomes that are already making difficult choices between food, gas, health care and other household expenses.
“These hikes will matter to the household budgets of seniors which make up 1.1 million members of AARP,” said Dickerson on Wednesday before the meeting. “Some people can afford this, but most people can’t. We’re going to fight the Utilities Commission to be able to pay whatever a fair rate would be and not a dime more.”
According to Dickerson, if the Utilities Commission is wiped clean and replaced in the coming weeks, the rate hikes could favor the power companies and the stock holders, and if the Utilities Commission isn’t replaced, “there will be no commission and the highest rate hikes will go into effect.” Dickerson said it is a lose-lose situation.
According to the Utilities Commission, another public hearing will be held in Raleigh on March 18, for which the information is now being gathered.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at email@example.com.