The most notorious legislation this session was Senate Bill 559, better known as the Duke Energy rate hike bill.
Upon first glance, the bill appeared noncontroversial, with its first section focusing on financing for storm recovery costs. Even its second section on utilities employing alternative rate plans explicitly called for rate setting to be fair to both utilities and consumers, something everyone can get on board with.
However, Duke Energy expertly worked with bill sponsors to write the language to its benefit. The bill’s implementation would have boosted Duke’s profits at North Carolina ratepayers’ expense.
Of most concern was the bill’s second section, which would have authorized multi-year rate plans, and would have likely circumvented the current yearly review of utility rates. By one estimate, if S559 had been enacted under the current rate plan, Duke would have stood to reap more than $100 million in additional annual profits, while potentially saddling consumers with the cost of cleaning up coal ash, and hindering progress toward a clean energy economy.
Though S559 was first introduced in early April, a drawn-out partisan stalemate prevented the bill from appearing on Gov. Cooper’s desk. The bill passed the Senate 27-21 in early May, but took over two months to make its way to the House floor, where it was repeatedly pulled from the calendar for a lack of votes.
In a last-ditch bid for Democratic support, House Republicans amended the bill to require that any Duke overearnings are invested in infrastructure projects for “low income areas.” The reality, however, is that the bill still lacked the teeth to ensure such communities receive any benefit from Duke’s “investment.” Written in broad terms, the amendment would have potentially allowed Duke to “double dip,” earning profits from new infrastructure without returning benefits and excess income to areas in need.
Additionally, despite a supposed interest in fairness for both the utility and the consumer, legislators avoided engagement with ratepayers and other stakeholders during the bill drafting process. In its original form, the bill’s passage would have been a hard blow to North Carolinians and to the health of our environment, as Duke continues its dirty monopoly.
The good news is our advocacy against the bill ultimately won the day. The House voted to make the second section a larger study of ratemaking procedures, including multi-year rate increases. The improved bill passed the House overwhelmingly. However, the Senate did not concur with that change, and the bill went to a conference committee. In conference, the study was removed, reverting the bill to its original structure, allowing Duke the extra earnings. But the House had the courage of its convictions, and refused to pass the conference report. So the controversial second section was removed again, and the bill passed with only the language on storm securitization.
This was a truly bipartisan effort, but it also shows the strength of our movement in electing the right leaders and holding their feet to the fire.