By Bridgette A. Lacy for AARP
When the N.C. Utilities Commission announced in February that Progress Energy would only receive about half of the rate increase the company requested, Wilmington resident Sonya Bennetone said “any increase is going to impose a hardship to the residents who can least afford it.”
Progress Energy and the Public Staff of the Utilities Commission agreed ratepayers should reimburse $182 million to the power company, an amount equal to overall rate increase request to 4.7 percent in the first year and 5.7 percent in subsequent years. The next step is for commissioners to decide how much more major industrials should pay compared to residential users, a tilt in favor of industrial users and their powerful lawyers.
However, retirees living on a fixed-income, college students paying their own electric bills and the working class are saying they can’t afford another hardship. Bennetone and others point to higher prices for gas and groceries and other necessities lightening the wallets of working class North Carolinians.
Through a petition, public testimony, meetings with the Commission, and advertising against the rate hikes, AARP has been busy fighting a rate increase that puts a big dent into people’s wallets takes away too much of the cost-of-living increase for those relying on Social Security as their only source of retirement income.
The final decision is up to the N.C. Utilities Commission, but Public Staff settlements carry considerable weight with the commission. Progress Energy Carolinas became a subsidiary of Duke Energy last year.
Bennetone, a 49-year-old mother of three, was one of hundreds who voiced concerns about the rate hike during February public hearings. Those hearings are still going on even though the rate hike issue appears to be decided, aside from calculating a “fair share” between residents or industrial users.
“The end result of this settlement will cause struggling seniors and families to suffer even more,” said Doug Dickerson, state director of AARP North Carolina. “Food, gasoline, and out-of-pocket medical costs are already rising several times more than Social Security adjustments. And now, power bills will spike even higher. We are dealing with very profitable companies that hold a monopoly on residents. Why should Duke investors’ profit at the expense of millions of hard-working and retired North Carolinians?"
Ruth Zalph, a retired 82-year-old teacher, says Duke Energy, the parent company of Progress, has said it also wants consumers to pay in advance so it can build a new nuclear plant. “No bank or financial institution will lend them the money,” she says. She shouldn’t either, since electricity provided from a future nuclear plant would likely be 15-20 years in the future.
Duke has asked for a 14 percent rate hike this year which the Commission will rule on in the near future. Its long-term plans also being considered by the Commission call for serial rate hikes to fund future construction.
It doesn’t sit well with consumer advocates like AARP that a bill in the legislature would sweep out the most current members of key state regulatory commissions including the North Carolina Utility Commission and replace them with members appointed by the governor and/or the legislature, members who most likely will favor Duke’s interests.
“Progress/Duke Energy continues its forced march towards extravagant rates without regard to the impact on low income North Carolinians,” says Gene Nichol, director of the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity. “It's now become a sort of dance -- Duke spends outrageous amounts on its executives, asks for ridiculous increases in its rates, and then settles, happily, for half. It creates the appearance that the regulators are doing their job and Duke is behaving. The only ones that lose are the citizens of North Carolina. But don't expect it to change without a major fight. They have the wheels well-oiled by now.”
Advocates for affordable energy are asking concerned residents to voice their concerns to the Commission and to attend public hearings being held in March. In the meantime, they encourage residents who need help to apply for assistance and to cut their own consumption with some simple energy saving tips.
Duke Energy offers financial assistance for low-income individuals and families to cover home energy bills regardless of their heating source. The funds are distributed to the State of North Carolina, which works with social service agencies to distribute the funds to customers, based on need. To learn more, visit http://www.duke-energy.com/community/energy-assistance.asp.
For information about the federally-funded, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), visit http://www.ncdhhs.gov/dss/energy/index.htm
Here are some tips from Wake Technical Community College instructor Roger Cameron, who teaches a class for the unemployed called “Financial Survival Guide: Learning to Live on Limited Income.”
- Don’t try to do this alone. There’s no manual to tell you how to apply. Get help in applying for assistance from job seekers and church groups.
- Turn down your water heater. Most people keep them too high.
- Don’t wash clothes in hot water.
- Don’t leave lights on in the house.
- Plug your electronics into a power strip. Turn the power strip off when you are not using them.
- Use a ceiling fan to keep your home cooler and warmer. Switching the fan blades on reverse forces warm air down. On cooler spring and summer days, open the window instead of cutting on the air conditioner.