By Lynn Bonner
Debate over a controversial proposal on electricity rates ratcheted up this week with two environmental groups’ full-page newspaper ad asking the state Senate’s top-ranking Democrat, Dan Blue, to end his support for a Duke Energy bill and stop taking the company’s “dirty money.”
The North Carolina Conservation Network was calling residents Monday, asking them to register their opposition to Senate Bill 559, which it described as a “blank check for Duke Energy.”
And a group of manufacturers and advocacy groups asked the bill’s sponsors to withdraw or substantially change its controversial sections.
Blue said the ad in the Sunday News & Observer, paid for by NC WARN and Appalachian Voices, is off base.
“This is absolutely groundless, “ Blue said in an interview. “This is the desperation of NC WARN.”
Blue is one of the main sponsors of the bill that would allow the state Utilities Commission to grant electricity rate increases in five-year blocks. Now, the Utilities Commission approves rate increases a year at a time.
Opponents are cranking up the pressure at a critical time. Two Senate committees have already endorsed the bill, and a third, the Senate Rules Committee, is set to consider it Tuesday – likely the final stop before going to a vote of the full Senate.
The bill’s supporters say considering rate increases over a period of years rather than a year at a time improves planning for the company and helps consumers.
“North Carolina needs modern and flexible tools for setting rates – tools that allow utilities to better align the timing of investments and thereby meet the needs of customers more quickly and cost-effectively,” Grace Rountree, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, said in an email.
“If approved, this legislation would provide new tools to the NCUC [NC Utilities Commission] that — if used only under their discretion— could translate to cost stability and predictability for North Carolina customers, as well as quicker access to the benefits of cleaner energy and new technologies.”
The bill has drawn an army of detractors that include manufacturers, the state’s largest employers, and environmental and consumer groups who say the bill would undercut rate-payer protections.
Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, said the multi-year rate plan is a way for Duke Energy to push onto consumers its costs for mismanaging coal ash and to pay for a grid modernization that the Utilities Commission has rejected.
“What they’re really proposing is a major overhaul of our electricity system,” Warren said.