South Carolina utility regulators reject “tone deaf” Duke fee increases

The Public Service Commission of South Carolina has turned down requests by Duke Energy’s two electric utilities in the state to triple the flat fee that they charge customers each month, calling the steep hike “tone deaf.”

The PSC’s final orders, issued this week, also sheared big rate increases Duke sought to bolster its “excessively high” executives’ pay and to recover millions spent on an abandoned nuclear plant.

When customers have to pay higher bills no matter how much electricity they use, that discourages them from taking steps to control their power bills and makes it harder for them to protect their pocketbooks.”

—Senior Attorney Gudrun Thompson

SELC represented the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Upstate Forever, and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in opposing the flat monthly fee increase. Commissioners agreed that tripling the fee would have presented an undue hardship on customers who struggle to pay their bills, including low-income and elderly customers.

The commissioners also agreed that such a big bump to the unavoidable monthly fee—which is charged to customers before they flip a single switch—would discourage customers from conserving energy to lower bills, since a large part of their bills would stay the same no matter how frugal they were.

Duke Energy Carolinas, the utility that provides electricity to much of the Upstate, had asked to charge each residential customer a flat fee of $28 per month, up from the current $8.29. Duke Energy Progress, the utility serving much of the Pee Dee region, asked to hike the fee from $9.06 to $29. After intense opposition from customers and from parties in the two cases, each utility agreed to drop the fee request to just under $12 per month.

At a series of five public hearings in Spartanburg, Greenville, Anderson, Florence and Sumter in March and April, standing-room only crowds turned out to tell the commissioners the Duke fee and rate hikes were unfair and unaffordable.

“The commissioners listened to the many customers who told them about the hardships they would face from the massive hike in mandatory fees that Duke proposed,” said SELC Senior Attorney Gudrun Thompson, who worked on the case. “When customers have to pay higher bills no matter how much electricity they use, that discourages them from taking steps to control their power bills and makes it harder for them to protect their pocketbooks. We’re grateful the commissioners recognized that.”

While many Duke customers cheered the commissioners’ rulings on the utility requests and newspapers like the Charleston Post and Courier opined that a “tougher PSC is long overdue,” Duke publicly bristled at the rulings.

“To use my bosses’ term, ‘they spit in our face,’” is how Duke manager Theo Lane was quoted in the Index-Journal of Greenwood, South Carolina. Duke officials also said the utility and its charitable foundation would reconsider future investments in the service area, which provides power to 750,000 Upstate customers.

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