NC Attorney General Roy Cooper appeals Duke Energy rate increase for second time

jmurawski@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2014 

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is for a second time appealing the same Duke Energy rate increase to the N.C. Supreme Court.

The attorney general contends that the N.C. Utilities Commission failed to weigh the rate’s economic impact on Duke’s electricity customers, many of whom are still struggling from the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Utilities Commission originally approved Duke’s 7.2 percent rate increase in 2012 and upheld its decision in 2013.

The state Supreme Court agreed with the attorney general the first time around, telling the Utilities Commission to try again, setting up the current impasse. Now Cooper says the Supreme Court needs to send a clearer message to get the point across.

“The Commission’s position is deeply unfair to consumers,” according to the attorney general’s legal challenge, which was filed Thursday and alleges that the Utilities Commission ignored the Supreme Court’s first decision and shrugged at the rate’s impact on customers.

Cooper, a presumptive Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2016, has filed a spate of legal challenges against utility rate increases, including an appeal against another Duke rate increase. Cooper’s attacks set up an implicit political contrast to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a 29-year veteran of Duke Energy.

In each utility challenge, the AG’s argument is the same: The Utilities Commission does not seriously weigh the interests of the rate-paying public while deferring to the pressures of Wall Street.

Duke counters that the rate increase approved by the Utilities Commission is based on a long-standing legal foundation.

“We believe the Commission’s Order satisfies all of the requirements set out by the N.C. Supreme Court and that the Commission properly weighed the evidence,” the company said in a statement.

The Utilities Commission made the same argument when reaffirming the rate increase last year, saying it listened to experts and took public comments from several hundred Duke customers and then struck the right balance between the utility’s customers and its shareholders.

The Duke rate increase is costing the typical residential customer about $7 a month. Duke is North Carolina’s largest electric utility, with 1.9 million customers statewide, and nearly 200,000 in Chapel Hill, Durham and the western section of the Triangle.

Cooper recently appealed another Duke rate increase – a 5.1 percent rate hike approved last year.

He also is fighting a 5.5 percent rate increase approved for Duke’s Raleigh subsidiary, Duke Energy Progress, formerly known as Progress Energy, with 1.3 million customers in the state. The Progress rate, which is costing a typical residential customer about $8 a month, is scheduled for oral arguments May 5.

He has also appealed a rate increase for Dominion, the Richmond, Va., power company that serves about 121,000 customers in the northeastern sliver of North Carolina.

Cooper has indicated he will challenge a rate increase requested by Aqua North Carolina, the state’s biggest private water utility, if the Utilities Commission approves an increase. That rate request is pending before the Utilities Commission and is expected to be issued in the coming weeks.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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