The ongoing wrangling before the N.C. Utilities Commission over Duke Energy’s request for a rate hike has become pretty good theater. The parade of executives, politicians, protesters and various experts are providing a snapshot of current politics, competing ideas about energy, and — to the point here — a peek into the corporate mindset at the Charlotte-based energy giant. The latter was the case yesterday when Duke exec Brett Carter revealed a bit more about the company’s attitudes toward low-income customers than Duke’s PR folks are going to be comfortable with.
Yesterday, the Utilities Commission and others grilled Carter on why Duke can’t put together a plan to lower electricity rates a bit for low-income customers (as of now, all the company offers is a pathetic, one-time “charitable” contribution). According to the Observer, here is what Carter told the commission: “That was a conversation that we had, but the administration of providing that would be outside the purview of what we could do.” Translating Carter’s “bureaucratese” into plain English, what he said was, “We’re not gonna do that because it's too much trouble and we just don't feel like it.”
As NC Policy Watch writes today, “pardon us Brett, but that’s a crock of bull.” They correctly go on to remind Carter that Duke Energy is a public utility that exists to serve the public interest (my emphasis). In other words, you can’t act like some regular giant corporation whose only emphasis is on the bottom line. Plus, Carter’s claim that it is beyond Duke’s capability to keep up with the state’s poor people is ridiculous. Again, from NC Policy Watch:
Right now, something like 35 separate telephone companies in North Carolina (all of them with less income and resources than [Duke Energy]) manage to do just that; they provide discounted phone service to people who are poor enough to be eligible for a number of low income support programs. Sure, the system is imperfect and a hassle, and they’d probably rather not be bothered, but they do it anyway.
At some point a few years back, some courageous public officials told the phone companies: “We know you don’t like it, but tough. This is the 21st Century -— figure out a way. You’ll still make boatloads of money. So get over it and do something for someone other than your overpaid CEO’s for a change.”
Yes indeedy, now that is what the Utilities Commission needs to tell Duke. And here’s another idea for Duke Energy: If helping poorer customers shrinks your bottom line a bit, let the shareholders absorb the loss. Again, you are a public utility, you’re supposed to be primarily concerned with serving the public interest. Considering that Duke Energy reported more than a billion dollars in profits for 2010, and yet not only didn’t pay taxes on that profit but even got back $5 million in 2010 from the IRS, I’d say it’s more than past time for it to reassess how to best serve the region. Hard times call for new ways of thinking, but we’re seeing precious little of it from the Voltron Towers uptown.
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