Energy increase hurts college students and seniors

By Emily Kendrick – Staff writer – EKendric@unca.edu

North Carolina residents should not have to pay higher electricity rates to fund dirty energy practices.

Progress Energy recently proposed a bill to increase electricity customers’ rates almost annually, inflicting the worst rate hikes on residential customers and small businesses, according to the Consumers Against Rate Hikes coalition.

Bill Gupton, outreach director of CARH, said Progress Energy proposed the rate hikes to pay for risky financial endeavors and guarantees for their shareholders.

“If Progress could put in place plans and programs that could reduce energy demand in households by 20 percent, that’s huge savings for customers,” Gupton said. “It would avoid the need to build new power plants and enable them to take old, less efficient power plants, like the one in Asheville, offline.”

This bill could possibly raise residential customers’ rates by 14 percent, with customers using the most electricity suffering the least. Basically, the bill encourages energy inefficiency, according to CARH. Residential customers’ monthly bills could increase by 9.4 percent to 45.5 percent, depending on usage.  
CARH does not have a public position on renewable energy, rather on the economic impacts of raising residential rates when so many people already can barely afford their electricity bills. Still, Gupton recognizes those who prefer cleaner energy practices would end up paying even higher rates for energy practices they do not agree with.

“When people are being asked to swallow a double digit rate hike and it is going toward something that they don’t believe in, that’s very difficult to swallow,” Gupton said.

With the recent discovery of Progress Energy’s pollution in the French Broad River, it seems even more ridiculous for customers who care about the environment to pay higher rates for unwanted technologies.

Emma Greenbaum, North Carolina associate organizing representative for Sierra Club’s Asheville Beyond Coal campaign, said she recently helped pack the house for a rate hike hearing with the Utilities Commission and spent five hours hearing public concerns about the potential rate hikes.

“We totally packed the room, which was about 120 people, and there were about 25 people who couldn’t even get in, so they were standing outside. There were maybe two testimonies on behalf of the rate hikes and Progress Energy. The subsequent 65 testimonies were all against the rate hikes,” Greenbaum said. “The vast majority of those talked about not just the economic issues, but the environmental impact of what Progress was doing. It was an overwhelming success and I think they got our message pretty loud and clear.”

Although Duke and Progress Energy recently merged and Progress Energy will change its name to Duke Energy Progress in late April, for the next couple of years they will operate as separate companies, both dishing out potential rate hikes to their areas, Greenbaum said. Part of the reasoning for the rate hikes request stems from the Construction Works in Progress bill, which allows Duke and Progress Energy to charge customers higher rates to pay for prospective power plants, but only after hearings before the Utilities Commission.  

“They can basically ask for money to build something, and then they’re not really obligated to actually build the thing if something else comes up,” Greenbaum said.

A recent study showed if North Carolina invested in clean energy technologies, the switch would lead to $173 million in cost savings by 2026, with no significant rate increases for any of the customer groups. Between 2007 and 2012, the state’s current clean energy and efficiency programs added about $1.7 billion to the gross state product, according to the study.These potential rate hikes could hit seniors on fixed incomes and college students struggling to pay bills and loans the hardest, according to CARH.

“If you look at the rate increase that’s being proposed, what you see is that residential customers are being asked to bear a disproportionate burden of that cost,” Gupton said.

Amber Williams, president of Active Students for a Healthy Environment at UNC Asheville, said Progress Energy excuses rate hikes as a way to fund clean energy technologies, but no good comes of it.

“In actuality, the revenue gained from the increased burden on the people of Appalachia, who rely on them for power, is going to fill the pockets of their lobbyists and to support the development of green washed sources of energy such as natural gas, hydrofracking and biomass,” Williams said. “All of which are hardly alternatives to coal, since they continue to exploit the natural environment and lead to byproducts that cause an incredible array of health problems for all of us.”

With the lack of progression toward renewable energy technologies, Progress Energy’s name seems like a big joke. We can only hope the rate hike hearings impact the Utilities Commission’s decision in a big way.

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