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Duke rate hike draws opposition

RALEIGH (AP) ó North Carolina utilities regulators opened hearings Monday that will decide whether Duke Energy will be allowed to raise electricity rates by 7.2 percent on its 1.8 million customers in the state.
The higher rates are expected to take effect in February if the North Carolina Utilities Commission agrees they are needed to give the Charlotte-based company a decent return while ensuring electric power remains dependable in Duke Energyís growing service area.
Electricity bills would increase by about $7 a month for the average household if the rate increase is approved. Utilities regulators in August approved adding about $5 to the average monthly home power bill so the company could recoup higher fuel costs.
Duke Energyís last rate increase in 2009 raised power costs by 7 percent, but the increase was spread over two years.
Terl Gleason of Greensboro asked the commission and the company to hold down power costs. He said he doesnít use air conditioning in the summer and wears long underwear to keep warm at home during the winter, but still pays about $100 a month.
ěIím a very simple person. I donít know much. I donít go out much. Sure, you folks need an increase to maintain your business,î Gleason said. ěSo really consider what youíre doing to the everyday people here.î
Thomas Henkel of Chapel Hill noted that Duke Energy decided to accept less than half of its original request of 15 percent on average after loud complaints from customers at a series of earlier public meetings. Regulators should refuse rate increases until $1.2 billion in profits the company is holding overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes is brought home, Henkel said. Putting that money into renewable-energy generation, with the tax advantages that come with that investment, would save the company and its customers billions of dollars in coal, oil and nuclear fuel costs, he said.
Duke Energy said it needs the extra money to pay for $4.8 billion in greater employee benefit costs, power plant modernization, environmental compliance, and other construction projects approved by state regulators since 2009. The proposal cleared a major hurdle last week with the endorsement of the commissionís Public Staff, which represents consumers. The electric company also committed to contributing $15 million to programs helping low-income consumers.
Advocacy groups representing consumers, low-income households, and large electricity users are urging the Utilities Commission to reject the proposed rate increase. State Attorney General Roy Cooper also plans to continue fighting the rate increase. Opponents will voice their objections after the hearing resumes Thursday.
ěA 7.2 percent rate increase is too much for working families and businesses during these tough economic times,î Cooper said in a statement.
The Charlotte company also is seeking a 15 percent average rate increase in South Carolina, which includes 17 percent more for residential customers. The higher rates would take effect on customer bills beginning in February if approved by regulators in that state.

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