Duke Energy rate increase causes stir in Charlotte

When Duke Energy’s top executive in North Carolina defended the company’s case for a rate hike this week, he sounded “out of touch” with struggling families, says Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham.

Cotham and other elected and community leaders met in Charlotte with representatives from the state’s largest electric power provider.

Afterward, Cotham took to Facebook and criticized Duke Energy’s nearly 17 percent proposed rate increase for residential customers. The post was shared widely and drew nearly 150 comments.

“The NC Duke Energy President bragged about how they were more efficient and installing smart meters so we could track our electric usage on our phones,” Cotham wrote. “But most struggling people and seniors don’t have smart phones or access to the internet … Then he said it…..poor people can take colder showers.”

Duke officials disagree with Cotham’s account of remarks by David Fountain, president of Duke Energy in North Carolina, saying she mischaracterized his suggestions to conserve hot water.

“This is attacking his character … It’s just a really unfortunate situation,” said Paige Layne, a spokesperson for Fountain at Duke.

Fountain’s point was that customers can use new Duke Energy “smart meters” to track their usage in real-time and make lifestyle changes to lower their own electric bills. The technology is one investment Duke officials point to as improvement in service that warrants a rate increase.

During the Tuesday presentation and question-and-answer session, Fountain explained customers can then use “smart meter” data to cut back on running major appliances and adjust thermostats to save money, according to people who were at the meeting.

Layne says Fountain didn’t say or suggest that people who can’t afford electricity should take colder showers. The tip to turn down the temperature dial on an electric hot water heater is general energy conservation guidance given by Duke and others in the industry for years, she said.

Fountain is traveling around North Carolina to meet with elected officials and answer questions about the rate review Duke Energy filed with state officials last week.

If approved, the rate hike would average $18 more a month for households in North Carolina.

Duke, which is headquartered in Charlotte, has asked state regulators for permission to charge more, saying it needs to recoup investments it has made in cleaner natural gas production and solar energy facilities. Part of the increase would pay for continued coal ash management but the money does not fund clean up or penalties related to the major spill on the Dan River, according to Duke officials.

Another person who attended the meeting said Fountain’s comments about hot water heaters and saving money on electricity bills was not made in a way to offend people who struggle to pay bills. Teddy McDaniel, CEO and president of the Urban League of Charlotte, said he sat two feet from Fountain during the meeting. The tip sounded like a piece of advice, relevant for any interested customer to save money, McDaniel said.

Layne said Duke is sensitive to the needs of customers and runs several programs in North Carolina to assist people paying heating and electricity bills. Duke Energy’s “Share the Warmth” program in North and South Carolina has sent more than $25 million to charitable agencies, like Matthews Help Center in Mecklenburg and Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte, to help families pay winter energy bills.

Cotham said she challenged Fountain during the meeting about the rate hikes because $18 more a month is a lot for many families.

“Why don’t you give people who are struggling a break? Why don’t you give senior citizens a break,” she said. “I’m sure he’s a nice man and I’m sure he does a great job … But he needs to get out more. He needs to understand the ripple effect on people.”

Cotham says she applauds Duke Energy when it makes charitable donations and does good in the community.

“But, when you’re doing something that’s not right, I’m going to call you out,” she said, referring to the proposed rate hikes. “And I don’t feel bad about it … He said ‘colder showers’ and he was talking about people who might struggle with their bill. And, he was talking about how people need to be more (energy) efficient.”

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