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Utility regulators weigh increased power rates for Duke Energy’s Upstate customers


Utility regulators weigh increased power rates for Duke Energy’s Upstate customers

May 23, 2024 | 7:33 pm ET
By Jessica Holdman
Utility regulators weigh increased power rates for Duke Energy’s Upstate customers
Mike Callahan, Duke Energy’s South Carolina president, testifies in front of the S.C. Public Service Commission Thursday, May 23, 2024. The utility is seeking permission to rase its rates for power customers in South Carolina's Upstate for the first time in more than five years. (Screenshot of SCETV Public Service Commission livestream)

COLUMBIA — Power bills for Duke Energy residential customers in Upstate South Carolina could go up, on average, by $12.50 a month in August, then rise by more than $6 additional monthly starting in 2026.

Still, the proposal is less than the company’s initial ask thanks to an agreement struck between the utility and consumer groups.

South Carolina utility regulators heard Thursday from Duke Energy Carolinas as the company seeks to increase electric rates for its roughly 830,000 customers in the Upstate — 658,000 of those being residential payers.

It’s unclear when regulators will make a decision.

The change would mark the first increase to the base electric rate charged to Duke’s Upstate customers in more than five years. However, rates have risen, on average, by roughly $16.50 monthly over that time span anyway due to the cost of power plant fuels such as coal and natural gas, as well as other costs such as energy efficiency programs.

In January, Duke sought to charge South Carolina customers by $323 million more yearly.

But a deal brokered by Duke and state utility watchdogs would cut a quarter of those charges and speed up the use of federal tax breaks to keep rates lower for the next two years.

Without the deal, the average residential customer with a bill of about $140 would pay more than $17 monthly starting in August, plus an additional $4 monthly in August 2026.

To get to the reduced number, Duke agreed that it would cut in half the amount it passes on the customers for its board of directors’ pay and expenses. It also removed expenses for industry organization dues, corporate sponsorships of community events, research and development and employee perks, such as baby showers, cookouts, flowers and ice cream parties.

Duke has argued it needs more revenue to pay for its power plants, renewable energy sources and power lines it necessary to serve a customer base that has grown 2.4% across North Carolina and South Carolina in the past year.

“We are taking steps to keep pace with and anticipate the changes occurring in our state,” said Mike Callahan, Duke Energy’s South Carolina president. “We appreciate the parties involved thoughtfully considering the needs of our customers and our ability to continue investing in our state’s booming economy.”

Other stipulations were made related to what the company can charge customers for coal ash clean up, storm emergency funds and its corporate headquarters building in Charlotte.

Duke, in turn, has agreed to bear the $1 million cost to study affordability measures for low-income customers and $1 million on a “weatherization” program to help homeowners make their homes more energy efficient.

“South Carolina has some of the highest energy bills in the country, and low-income customers are the most in need of relief,” said Kate Mixson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We’re pleased to have reached this settlement that will help families struggling to afford basic needs and essential services while trying to keep the lights on.”

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While the rates utilities are allowed to charge are bound by regulation, the companies are allowed under state law to be compensated for certain costs of providing service and make a guaranteed rate of return on the power lines, pipelines and power generation they build.

The agreement would take the company down from the 10.5% profit rate it was asking for to 9.94%.

The state Department of Consumer Affairs, which did not sign on to the settlement proposal being considered by utility regulators, would like to see that rate further lowered as hearings continue over the next few days.

Duke is not the only utility seeking to raise rates in the state.

Virginia-headquartered Dominion Energy applied in March to raise its rates by about 14%, costing the average residential customer nearly $19 more per month starting in September. The typical residential customer currently pays $146 per month.

The Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, is expected to hear that case in July.

Last year, Duke Energy secured a rate increase for the customers it serves in the Pee Dee. The typical residential bill there is about $148 a month.

Public input sessions for upcoming Dominion Energy rate case

• Aiken: Thursday, May 30, 6p.m.
Aiken County Government Center, County Council chambers
1930 University Parkway, 3rd floor

• Bluffton: Monday, June 10, 6 p.m.
Bluffton Town Council chambers
20 Bridge Street

• North Charleston: Thursday, June 27, 6 p.m.
Lonnie Hamilton III Public Services Building, County Council chambers
4045 Bridgeview Drive

• Columbia: Monday, July 8; 10 a.m. – noon; and 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Public Service Commission hearing room
101 Executive Center Drive