Press Release | October 25, 2023

North Carolina industry group challenges $1.70 on their bills designed to safeguard low-income customers from disconnection amid soaring electricity costs

RALEIGH, N.C. – On Oct. 17, the Carolina Industrial Group for Fair Utility Rates II (CIGFUR), which represents a group of large industrial customers and manufacturers filed a notice of appeal from the Duke Energy Progress (DEP) rate case, challenging the Customer Assistance Program (CAP) and the ability for the N.C. Utilities Commission (NCUC) to approve any future low-income payment assistance program. This filing is an attack on those low-income customers who struggle most to afford their bills, who are on the cusp of receiving long-needed bill payment assistance.

The Customer Assistance Program pilot would be North Carolina’s most powerful tool to achieve affordable electric bills for the state’s most vulnerable customers. It works by providing an automatic bill reduction of $42 per month to Duke customers who have been enrolled in Federal programs for low-income energy assistance. The CAP would be funded by a small rider that would apply to all customers. Importantly, CAP is anticipated to bring savings from reduced missed payments that are otherwise collected from all customers, including CIGFUR members. 

However, CIGFUR, whose full list of members remains undisclosed, has now challenged this lifeline. CIGFUR’s members would pay just $1.70/month on their electric bills for the program — less than a cup of coffee. Yet CIGFUR didn’t stop at challenging this particular program or whether their members should be required to contribute. It is bringing its appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court to try to prohibit the N.C. Utilities Commission from approving any kind of low-income bill payment assistance program, now or in the future. 

Advocates are shocked at CIGFUR’s attack on the Commission’s authority to implement the CAP pilot particularly because CIGFUR participated in the Low-Income Affordability Collaborative, where affordability challenges faced by low-income customers were thoroughly documented. Additionally, CIGFUR has participated in other Commission proceedings in which the struggles of low-income customers to afford their essential public utility service were made part of the record. 

The CAP was agreed to by Duke Energy, the Public Staff (state’s consumer advocate), and a group of environmental and justice advocates. CAP was approved as a three-year pilot program for customers of Duke Energy Progress by the N.C. Utilities Commission in August of 2023 and was set to be implemented as soon as January 1, 2024. The Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of N.C. Justice Center, N.C. Housing Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Vote Solar, alongside the Sierra Club, have both requested that the NCUC move forward with the CAP regardless of CIGFUR’s court challenge because CIGFUR’s challenge is likely to fail and the CAP is sorely needed to help people survive Duke’s rate increase in the immediate future. 

“Customers who face disconnection when they can’t afford their electric bill face the painful reality of children not having access to educational tools in order to keep up with school, lacking access to heat as winter approaches, and losing perishable foods and medicines,” said Deborah Dicks Maxwell, President of the State Conference of the NAACP. “The NAACP has long advocated for better protections for our most vulnerable neighbors. It would be a shame for a small number of wealthy industrial customers to try and disallow this long-needed assistance just to avoid paying a mere $1.70 a month.” 

Large industrial groups were already granted a smaller rate increase (as a percentage), and CIGFUR’s members are now fighting tooth and nail to eliminate a $1.70/month charge – the equivalent of a rounding error for industrial customers who have monthly electric bills in the realm of tens of thousands of dollars – for a program that would help thousands keep the lights on.

“It’s a tragedy to witness a group of large industrial players go out of their way to fight a monthly fee less than the price of a single cup of coffee, which would greatly help the state’s most vulnerable citizens,” said Jake Duncan, Regulatory Director for Vote Solar. “The ratemaking process has long been an inequitable one. Regulatory spaces can be too costly for the state’s most disadvantaged communities to access and, as a result, their needs and voices are often not heard. It’s time for fairness and compassion to prevail over profit-motivated self-interest.”

Advocates say low-income DEP customers are disproportionately burdened by high electric bills, particularly during a time of persistent inflation. Any delay in implementing CAP all but guarantees that those customers will continue to struggle paying their electric bills and potentially risk disconnection.

“This urgently needed, Commission-approved program was carefully developed with stakeholder feedback over a year-long process,” said David Neal, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “North Carolina’s most vulnerable households deserve the same programs we’re seeing across the country that help customers afford bills and access energy savings that reduce system costs for everyone. It would be shameful to let a win-win program like this be stopped just because a handful of powerful industrial customers do not want to pay $1.70 per month.”

“The challenge from CIGFUR against this historic payment assistance program is an unprecedented and egregious example of corporate greed, said Reggie Shuford, NCJC Executive Director. By challenging the commission’s authority to approve payment assistance programs, a few corporate interests are cutting off a lifeline to affordable energy for those most in need. This program has the support of the public staff, Duke Energy, the utility commission, and advocacy groups across the state. It should not be derailed by a group of faceless corporate entities.”

“This customer assistance program is one step in addressing significant inequities that occur for low-income ratepayers in North Carolina, who often carry the burden of high electricity bills,” said Mikaela Curry, Field Manager for Sierra Club. “While large industrial and manufacturing customers are up in arms about an additional $1.70 a month, there are people all across our state struggling to keep the lights on. There are 227,000 households in DEP service territory that are considered ‘very low income’ ($15k/yr or less), and we must push back against the commercial and industrial giants who would fight a program that will improve the daily lives of these families and communities most affected by this rate change.”

“The Customer Assistance Program would provide critical assistance to North Carolinians who face the greatest risk of losing access to home energy and could otherwise face power outages during times of extreme heat or freezing temperatures. CIGFUR’s last-minute effort to derail the program is heartless and shameful,” said Drew Ball, Southeast Campaign Manager at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “The program is the product of thoughtful consensus between diverse stakeholders because it is in the best interest of all North Carolinians, especially our state’s most vulnerable.”

“Utility costs are a significant part of the rising housing costs in this state that those at the lowest incomes are finding impossible to bear. That CIGFUR would challenge this historic payment assistance program at the moment when North Carolina’s housing costs are higher than they have ever been is egregious, and not a path forward for a prosperous and inclusive North Carolina. This program has wide support and needs to be expanded, not eliminated.” Samuel Gunter, North Carolina Housing Coalition’s Executive Director.

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