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Customer savings from Duke Progress merger

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Duke Energy customers say they're losing hope that the controversial merger between Duke Energy and Progress Energy will yield the savings that were promised to customers.

"Most of what I've heard on the news leads me to believe that we're not necessarily getting a good deal out of it. So I would like the Industrial Commission to step up and protect the consumer," said one customer.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission said Thursday that its consumer-protection division and Duke reached a deal potentially ending the probe into whether the company misled the regulator ahead of approving the merger.

As part of the settlement with the Commission, Duke has agreed to send $25 million more back to North and South Carolina customers, in addition to $650 million originally promised in fuel savings.

"I don't think I'll ever see [savings]. Basically, I think rates are probably going to go up," said another customer.

Rates are likely to increase in 2013. Progress Energy has already filed a request for an 11 percent increase and Duke Energy is expected to follow suit in February.

Robert Gruber is the executive director for the Public Staff, which represents the public to the commission. He contends the total $675 million in fuel savings will go back to customers over the next five years, beginning in 2013.

"This proceeding was about the commission's authority to make sure that the commission has full authority to regulate Duke that they're not too big to regulate as a combined company," Gruber said.

Gruber applauded the commission for returning balance to the proposed settlement which he says will make "a better and stronger company."  

"The way the commission has adjusted the merger and required it to be more balanced will make sure that the efficiencies that the commission thought they were approving will actually occur," Gruber said.

Outspoken merger critic Jim Warren, of NC WARN, isn't buying it and says the state is giving Duke everything they could want with just a "slap on the wrist."

"The regulators of this state have sold out the public," Warren said.

The agreement also dictates that Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers step down as head of the largest U.S. electric utility.

Warren points out that prior to the announcement of the settlement agreement, Rogers was planning to retire when his employment contract expires on Dec. 31, 2013.

In addition,Warren says the additional $25 million is "chump change to Duke Energy" and any so-called customer savings is just smoke and mirrors.

Warren points to Crystal River, the company's damaged nuclear power plant in Florida. According to Duke Energy estimates, it will cost as much as $3.4 billion to repair the plant.

"Those costs are what we call 'ring fenced.' There's a ring around them and they can't be passed on to North Carolina customers," explained Gruber.

"They're wrong. They're just dead wrong," Warren said.

Warren contends that repairs to the Crystal River plant and other plants in North Carolina paired with fleet upgrades will be passed on to the customers in the form of repeated rate hikes, ultimately canceling out the original $675 million promised in customer savings.

A Progress Energy customer tells NBC-17 it all comes down to this: "It's a win for the company and a loss for the citizens."

Warren says he couldn't agree anymore. "We need state regulators, the Utilities Commission and Public Staff -- who is supposed to be independent and representing our interests -- we need them to be good watchdogs of the process. The regulators have failed here."

The Commission is expected to give the settlement its stamp of approval when they vote on Monday.

Earlier this year, Duke Energy's board told the public and state regulators who approved the merger that former Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson would lead the combined company. However, hours after the deal was made official, Duke Energy announced that Rogers would replace Johnson.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission said they were misled about who would lead the company. As a result, the state regulator and Attorney General Roy Cooper launched investigations into the quick change, demanding internal Duke documents and communications.

Attorney General Cooper's investigation continues, but Friday a spokeswoman told NBC-17 it would be inappropriate to comment at this stage.

Duke Energy now has 7.1 million residential and business customers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Florida.

 

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