Outcry against Duke Energy rate increase reaches Sumter

All-opposition testimony featured in last public hearing before commission decides on proposal

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 4/5/19

A proposed rate increase for Duke Energy customers was not popular Tuesday night at a public hearing in Sumter.

Nearly 20 people spoke out at USC Sumter's Nettles Auditorium against what was proposed initially as a tripling of the mandatory …

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Outcry against Duke Energy rate increase reaches Sumter

All-opposition testimony featured in last public hearing before commission decides on proposal

Posted

A proposed rate increase for Duke Energy customers was not popular Tuesday night at a public hearing in Sumter.

Nearly 20 people spoke out at USC Sumter's Nettles Auditorium against what was proposed initially as a tripling of the mandatory monthly fees that Duke Energy Carolinas charges all customers the night after about 45 people gave testimony to a standing-room-only crowd in Florence. That initial increase has already been reduced because of earlier and consistent outcry, but opponents are adamant that any extra charge is too much - potentially threatening rural livelihoods and ways of life.

Duke Energy Progress, which serves about 169,000 customers in the northeastern corner of South Carolina, including Florence, Darlington and Sumter, started with a request to the Public Service Commission to increase its basic facilities charge from $9 to $29 a month.

Now, they're asking for $11.78 from residential customers, $12.34 from small general service customers and $11.31 from SGS Constant Load customers. That's 12.5% for residential customers and about 8.8% for commercial and industrial commercial customers, all to increase retail revenues by about $59 million, or 10.3% over current revenue amounts.

The proposed increase addresses improved customer systems, according to Duke. An order by Duke Energy to remove all coal ash in North Carolina was a spot of contention at the Sumter hearing, with residents and the state Office of Regulatory Staff saying South Carolina customers are being unfairly asked to pay for another state's actions that they didn't get a chance to vote on.

Ryan Mosier, a spokesman for Duke Energy in South Carolina, said the increase is necessary because "we have made significant investments in recent years to build a smarter energy infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing customer base" and that the charges will cover the costs of facilities the company has installed.

Farmers and those with a fixed income, such as those on disability or senior citizens who rely on Social Security checks that are often $1,000 a month or less, have been the most vocal and appear posed to be hit the hardest. Because the increase is a basic facilities charge and has nothing to do with usage or efficiency, the hike will reflect a flat rate for everyone.

A senior living in a mobile home, a couple living in a two-bedroom apartment and a family living in a six-bedroom, two-story detached home would all have to pay the same basic facilities amount each month.

According to other media outlets, South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers was the first to speak at the public hearing in Florence the night before the one in Sumter. He began a theme of opposition, which carried onto the statements in Sumter, focused on recent hardships farmers and the agriculture industry in South Carolina have endured. With the 1,000-year flood in 2015, back-to-back hurricanes last year and President Donald Trump's tariff war with China, farmers are at a breaking point for survival.

Farmers typically have more than one - if not a dozen or so - meter, handfuls of which may be only used seasonally based on commodities and fields. Having to pay a base rate every month on otherwise zeroed-out meters could be detrimental, they're saying.

"I've sold my commodities at lower prices than my father and my grandfather," said a Bishopville farmer. "I have 11 meters. And my neighbor has 21, and sometimes they're flat."

Jeremy Buchanan, a farmer in Turbeville, also spoke against any increase.

"We cannot stand an increased rate and stay in business," he said.

Paula Martin, a retiree who lives in Manning, said this increase gives no consideration to senior citizens who she said are often low-energy users and live on fixed incomes.

Michelle Davis Parker lives in a Habitat for Humanity house in Sumter and also survives on a fixed income. She said she couldn't afford the $200 or so a month for her electric bill if this proposal is accepted.

Even others spoke out against Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good's $21.4 million paycheck from 2017, which is 175 times the $122,000 median pay of all the workers in the company.

The Public Service Commission serves as a quasi-judicial litigator for cases involving utilities and other regulated companies, including investor-owned electric and gas utilities such as Duke Energy, as well as water and wastewater companies, telecommunications companies, motor carriers of household goods, hazardous waste disposal and taxicabs, according to its website.

The hearings have been in front of the seven General Assembly-elected commissioners, with attorneys from the Office of Regulatory Staff and Duke Energy sitting on either side of the resident witnesses. Testimony and evidence presented by both sides will be taken into account before the commission has final say in whether to approve the proposal.

The ORS represents the public interest of South Carolina in utility regulation before the commission, the court system, the General Assembly and federal regulatory bodies.

The commission will meet with Duke Energy Progress on April 11. If approved, the new rates will take effect June 1.