(Cassie Cope/Charlotte Observer) - Duke Energy is seeking permission from North Carolina regulators to charge its customers for costs related to three destructive 2018 storms.
The Charlotte-based utility said it plans to propose sometime this year raising customers’ bills. It wants to recover costs it incurred from Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Michael and winter storm Diego as part of that rate increase.
Duke estimated the storms cost $761 million, with the majority of expenses from damage in North Carolina. Duke wants to recover about $570 million from North Carolina customers.
“North Carolina endured three massive storms that caused significant devastation and required Duke Energy to completely rebuild parts of its system in order to restore power to our customers,” said Duke spokeswoman Meredith Archie in a statement. “The N.C. Utilities Commission will ultimately determine what’s appropriate for customer rates based on a long-standing and very transparent public process.”
Duke announced its plans following a rate hike last year for its residential customers in eastern and central North Carolina, including in the Charlotte area. In that hike, a typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month saw their bill increase from $103.85 to $104.69, according to Duke.
Consumer advocates worry Duke will keep looking to raise power bills.
“We are worried that Duke and other utilities may continue to seek rate increases on a more regular basis,” said Al Ripley, director of energy, housing and consumer affairs for the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit that focuses on social justice issues. ”And for low-income ratepayers, these rate cases are just not affordable.”
He said it is fair for Duke to recover some of the storm costs, but added that North Carolina needs to do more to help low-income people so they can afford electricity. That includes programs to provide better energy efficiency for low-income residents, he said.
It could also include setting rates based on income, Ripley said. For example, low-income residents could pay less than wealthier customers, he said.
Duke has its own programs to help customers lower bills, including a “Share the Warmth” project that helps customers with high winter heating bills.
In last year’s rate case, which saw a hike for residential customers, Duke lowered bills for commercial and industrial clients. That reduction was in response to a ruling by regulators who called for a net decrease to bills across all customer types.
Now, Duke says it needs to recover hundreds of millions of dollars it spent repairing damaged equipment and restoring power during the three storms that began in September 2018.
The storms affected Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves western North Carolina and parts of South Carolina, including the Upstate.
Heavy damage also occurred in Duke Energy Progress territory, which includes eastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina, known as the Pee Dee. Duke is separately seeking a rate increase for its South Carolina customers.
The most expensive storm was Hurricane Florence, during which Duke deployed 20,000 people, including workers from other states.
Florence’s rain and winds left “epic flooding and devastation in its wake,” Duke said in its request to eventually charge customers for the storm costs. About 1.8 million Duke customers in North Carolina and South Carolina were affected by the storm, the company said.
During Hurricane Florence, Duke said it had about 222 miles of downed wire, 5,770 downed poles and 2,200 damaged transformers across the Carolinas.