Power down: Residents contest Progress Energy rate hike

Public sentiment at a March 6 hearing conducted by the North Carolina Utilities Commission overwhelmingly opposed Progress Energy’s proposed rate hike. Of the more than 60 speakers who weighed in during the five-hour hearing at the Buncombe County Courthouse, only two — representing Biltmore Farms and the Council of Independent Business Owners, respectively — supported the increase.

The utility originally sought approval to bump up the base rate by an average of 11.7 percent, with residential users potentially paying still more. At this writing, however, the commission’s Public Staff had reached a tentative deal reducing the average increase to a total of 5.7 percent, spread over two years.

A company representative said at the hearing that demand has increased to the point that the utility needs more cash to keep everything running and to shift more to natural gas.

Opponents of the move raised objections ranging from the impact on the working poor to the projected environmental damage.

"Unfortunately, every month I have to write a check to a company that is contributing to environmental degradation through the burning of fossil fuels. Now they want more of my paycheck to go toward keeping their coal boilers running," said Asheville resident Emily Greenbaum. "My income is already stretched thin; I have substantial student loans to pay off, as many of us do. Also, like many folks of moderate means, I live in an old apartment that is very poorly insulated, which makes it difficult to keep warm in the winter." Greenbaum said she’s already using space heaters and several layers of clothing at home.

The Green Grannies, a local environmental group, tried to sing songs opposing the increase, but they were blocked by utilities commission Chair Edward Finley. "We're not going to sing during testimony," he said, though he did let them perform during a break in the hearings.

Asheville resident Stephanie Biziewski blasted the proposed rate hike, saying it would produce "short-term gains using yesterday's energy sources." She wondered whether the utility would still need an increase if it cut executive salaries and spent less on lobbying.

The Rev. James Lee of St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church sounded a similar note. "In the community and in my congregation, I see the people this will hurt," he said. "Instead of [Progress Energy] using the poor, elderly, unemployed and underemployed to increase their profits, I would challenge the executives who think it's a good idea to raise rates in this environment to cut their salaries and their bonuses and fund their own projects."

But Mac Swicegood of the Council of Independent Business Owners dismissed those concerns, saying the top priority is keeping the lights on.

"Alternative energy has proven its inability to sustain the demands of the electrical grid on a day-in, day-out basis," asserted Swicegood. "The power company must have the tools to plan and produce the future electrical needs of this region. … It is better to be in the light than in the dark."

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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