By David Pollard
Robeson County leaders are taking a stand against Duke Energy’s plan to seek state approval to charge more for the electricity it sells.
The utility says its needs to raise rates to pay for costs incurred during recent weather events, including Hurricane Florence.
Commissioner Tom Taylor suggested Monday that the Board of Commissioners should tell Duke Energy the county is against a rate increase. He said Robeson County is poor and many of its residents cannot afford to pay more.
“I just think it’s wrong,” he said. “All the money they make and people can’t get back into their houses here.”
Taylor asked County Manager Kellie Blue to write and send a letter to Duke Energy telling it of the county’s concerns. He said the commissioners need to let residents know they have their best interest in mind.
“When people are down we should try to help them instead of knocking them down,” he said. “We’re supposed to look out of for each other.”
Duke Energy supplies electricity to 23,000 customers in Robeson County, 17,000 of which are residents and the remaining 6,000 are businesses and government properties.
Blue said the letter would be sent out soon. Duke Energy would need approval of the state Utilities Commission to raise its rates.
Taylor hopes state officials read the county’s letter and its concerns seriously.
“They (Duke executive) make millions of dollars and we have people who can’t pay their light bill right now,” he said. “It’s just not fair.”
Duke Energy will be seeking to raise its rates sometime this year, said Jeff Brooks, a company spokesman. The utility company has not determined how big an increase it will seek, but he said the increase would be spread over eight years.
“We have proposed to spread the cost over eight years to reduce costs so that it’s less of an impact on the customer on each bill,” he said.
The increase is intended to recoup money spent to repair infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Florence and this past month’s heavy snowfall, which caused power outages in Raleigh and Durham, Brooks said. Critics also accuse the utility of trying to shift the cost of its coal-ash woes to its consumers.
“We’re doing our best to manage these costs from these storms and that the increase is done in a thoughtful way,” he said.
Walter White, vice president of Corporate Services for Lumber River Electric Membership Corporation, said it has no plans to ask for a rate hike. The company provides electricity to about 40,000 residents throughout Robeson County.
A change in LREMC’s rates would have to be contractually negotiated through North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation, a statewide system of cooperatives, and Duke Energy, White said.
Red Springs and Lumberton will not be affected by a Duke rate hike because of their affiliation with ElectriCities, local leaders said.
ElectriCities is a nonprofit membership organization of municipally owned electric utilities that are spread across Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
“The NC Eastern Municipal Power Agency is a wholesale customer of Duke Energy Progress and has 32 members in eastern North Carolina, two of which are Lumberton and Red Springs. NCEMPA members, including Lumberton and Red Springs, are unaffected by Duke’s retail rate changes,” an ElectriCities statement reads.
Duke Energy supplies electricity at a wholesale price to 1,600 homes, businesses and industries, and 3,600 permanent residents in Red Springs, according to Town Manager David Ashburn. He said the commissioners will probably discuss Duke Energy’s plans at a future meeting.
In Lumberton, 10,226 residents and 1,964 businesses buy their power from the city.