By Virginia Bridges
DURHAM — Hours before the 7 p.m. hearing, a crowd gathered more than a block away to protest Duke Energy’s proposed rate hike for customers before the N.C. Utilities Commission.
About 25 Occupy Durham supporters held a mini-rally at the city’s CCB Plaza to criticize Duke Energy, corporate greed and the political climate that has allowed businesses to raise fees and increase profits. The crowd swelled to more than 60 and spilled out of the already full City Council chambers by the time the hearing began.
Duke’s request includes a 17 percent hike for all residential customer classes. The largest group of those customers, however, would actually pay close to 20 percent more. Typical bills would rise about $18 a month beginning in February.
The N.C. Utilities Commission’s Public Staff, which represents consumers, has recommended an increase of only 4.8 percent.
If the utility’s request is approved by the commission, it would be Duke’s biggest rate increase in at least 20 years. Three-fourths of the increase would help pay for $4.8 billion in Duke construction since 2009, new power plants and pollution-control equipment.
Wednesday’s hearing was the last of a series of public hearings held throughout Duke’s territory. Crowds of people have protested at each.
Duke District Manager Millie Chalk defended the rate hike at the beginning of the hearing, saying the money is needed to pay for investments made to modernize the system and comply with regulations. Those improvements include underground cables and equipment to boost reliability in downtown Durham.
Duke serves about 170,000 customers in Durham, Chapel Hill and other parts of the western Triangle.
But many of the hearing’s speakers were not swayed. They contrasted Duke Energy’s successes – it earned $1.3 billion and paid its chief executive $6.9 million in 2010 – with those who can’t afford their current energy bills.
They also argued that Duke is investing in archaic energy models that threaten the environment instead of moving toward renewable energy.
“We are demanding a new direction in North Carolina, and we are demanding a real democracy,” said Jim Warren of N.C. WARN.
Warren’s statement contrasted with that of Durham Technical Community College Director Carver Weaver, who said Duke Energy has contributed more than $500,000 in the past year in programs that seek to train workers on green and clean technology.
Before the hearing, the Occupy Durham crowd carried colorful posters, with statements such as “All the power to the people,” and “Duke Energy You Take a Hike,” and paraded around the block to City Hall chanting, “Money for jobs and education, not for greedy corporations,” accompanied by John Griffin, 24, beating a modified snare drum.
At 6 p.m., the crowd gathered outside Durham’s City Hall to hear various speakers criticize the rate increase, including representatives from small businesses, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh and Democracy North Carolina.
“We are here to point out this obscenity as a prime example of the profit fever that sickens the rich and continues to weaken the backs of the working people who keep this country afloat,” said Rafael Estrada, 24, of Durham, at the Occupy Durham rally.
“In the last fiscal year, Catholic Charities in Durham has provided emergency assistance to 3,600 people,” said Susan Gilbertson, regional director of Catholic Charities. “Most of the families live in poverty.”
Even if Duke Energy and Progress Energy complete their corporate merger by the end of the year, their two customer bases won’t be merged any time soon.
After the merger, Progress will operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Duke. Duke and Progress customers will continue paying different electricity rates and getting bills from the two respective companies.
The two companies will also apply separately to regulators for permission to raise rates. This arrangement is expected to continue indefinitely.
The Utilities Commission will begin hearing expert testimony on the rate hike Nov. 28.