Power rates may climb, but how far depends on Cooper

Christine T. Nguyen—North State Journal

CHARLOTTE — Homeowners in N.C. and S.C. could spend up to 2.5 percent more on energy starting next year if the State Utilities Commission approves a request from Duke Energy. Duke filed the request for a rate increase with state regulators last week. The increases would come in two phases, one in fall and one in winter, to cover the costs of energy efficiency programs and fuel factor costs. Duke is expected to file a separate increase request over the summer, potentially to cover the costs of cleanups at its N.C. coal ash plants.How large those power bill increases might be depends largely on how firm Gov. Roy Cooper holds to his campaign promise to abide by the opinion of N.C. DHHS scientists who told homeowners near coal ash ponds that chromium levels in their drinking water weren’t safe. However, there was controversy at the time between the health officials and the DEQ scientists over water contamination thresholds under the federal Clean Water Act.DHHS Scientist Ken Rudo at that time advocated for permissible levels that were 1,400 times more stringent than the federal standard. DEQ estimated that 70 percent of public water systems in the country would be told not to drink their water if Rudo’s standard was used. During the gubernatorial campaign, Cooper, then the attorney general, promised to stick with the standard.”One of the things I’m going to do is listen to the scientists,” Cooper said during a televised gubernatorial debate in October. If Cooper sticks with the chromium standard advocated by Rudo, DEQ may not be able to approve Duke’s water supply plans that would currently avoid excavating all of their coal ash ponds. If those plans are not approved, all of the coal ash ponds would have to be excavated, which could double the overall costs of the coal ash cleanup.In 2014, Cooper said in a letter to the N.C. General Assembly that stockholders, not ratepayers, should pay for the cleanup. He also pegged then-Gov. Pat McCrory as the “Duke Energy Governor,” accusing him of siding with the energy company by saying that the coal ash ponds were safer if they remain in place.If Cooper sticks with his campaign promise to abide by the scientists’ recommendation, Duke will be required to continue digging up the ponds, transporting coal ash, usually by truck, to alternate locations. The process has already been underway for more than a year.The requests for rate increases come as N.C. citizens are invited to speak at meetings across the state on the coal ash cleanup process. On Monday night, citizens in Asheville turned out for a DEQ meeting to review a draft proposal to remove the coal ash from the Lake Julian power plant. The meeting in Eden took place Tuesday night, where nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River in 2014.