Opinion: Sumter customers can speak out against Duke Energy Progress fee increase proposal


If Duke Energy gets its way, the fees on your electric bill will soon triple. When Duke Energy sends you a bill, you may notice a "fixed charge," the fee that Duke sticks on your bill every month, without fail or explanation. No matter how little electricity you use, you owe this fee.

Instead of a current "basic facilities charge" of about $9 per month, Duke Energy Progress wants you to pay $29 per month, even if you never once flip a light switch. That comes out to $348 a year and would earn Duke Energy Progress the dubious distinction of charging the single biggest fixed fee of any investor-owned utility in the country.

Duke's dramatic increase in fees mirrors increases consumers are facing across the marketplace - from airlines to cable to those frustrating venue fees at concerts and sporting events.

Why is Duke Energy asking to impose a fee hike on its customers? It doesn't seem to be giving anyone a straight answer. It'll claim it's to fund improvements to the electric grid, but it is already adding an additional fee raise to do that. Increasing fixed fees is usually a way for a company to guarantee revenue even if its customers' electric usage flattens or decreases. In other words, it's usually a tool to protect investors, not consumers.

What's your best guess? Is this big hike to its fees a move to boost profits at customers' expense? Duke Energy made $3 billion in profit last year; shouldn't that be more than enough? And its CEO's salary was $21 million in 2017, the highest salary for a utility CEO in the entire country. Until it delivers an honest answer, it is hard not to deduce the worst.

Consumer Reports recently issued a report, with analysis conducted with Synapse Energy Economics, that identified several problems that fixed charges create for consumers. These problems include: 1) reducing customer control over bills, 2) shifting a larger burden on low-usage customers, 3) disproportionately impacting low-income customers, and 4) reducing customer incentives to conserve energy, because no reduction in home energy use will spare you from the fixed fee.

We know Duke Energy can do better for consumers because other utilities in South Carolina are not raising fixed fees. SCE&G customers in Charleston, for instance, currently pay only $9 per month, with no plans to change. Other parts of the country also have much lower fixed fees than Duke is proposing, and other states, including Ohio and Florida, have rejected the kind of increase that Duke is proposing. South Carolina electricity customers already have the highest monthly electricity costs in the entire country, and Duke's proposal isn't in its customers' best interest.

Duke Energy has a monopoly on your access to electricity if you live in its service territory, which gives Duke a lot of power. But not all the power. In order for Duke to raise this fee, South Carolina's Public Service Commission will have to approve it.

This means the people of South Carolina have power, too. You can demand that the commission stop this increase. You can demand that Duke Energy do a better job of using ratepayers' dollars wisely. You can demand it be more energy efficient. And you can demand fairer fees.

Duke Energy customers can speak up by contacting South Carolina's Public Service Commission, (803) 896-5100 or contact@psc.sc.gov, as well as show up to public hearings. Florence's meeting is Monday, April 1, at 6 p.m. at County Council Chambers. Sumter's meeting is Tuesday, April 2, at 6 p.m. at USC Sumter's Nettles Auditorium.

Meanwhile, elected officials need to fight for fair utility rates and against undue fees during this legislative session.

Duke Energy may think it can get away with raising customer fees - but it won't, if you speak up.

Shannon Baker-Branstetter is senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports. To learn more about Duke Energy's plans go to cr.org/truthaboutduke. To learn more about Consumer Reports' What The Fee campaign, visit www.whatthefee.com.