A powerful consortium of pulp and paper mills and large manufacturers said Thursday it would drop its challenge to a Duke Energy aid program — ensuring tens of thousands of poor households in Asheville and eastern North Carolina will receive bill assistance next year after all.
Set to begin in January in Duke Energy Progress territory for a three-year trial period, the program gives a $42 discount for 12 months to customers struggling to pay their electric bills. Large industrial customers help pay for the program with a flat $1.70 monthly fee.
The Carolina Industrial Group for Fair Utility Rates had contended that regulators lacked the authority to approve the program, and that it violated the ratemaking principle that one class of customers shouldn’t subsidize another. The group moved for a delay until the matter was resolved by the state Supreme Court, a process that could take years.
The motions last month prompted a flurry of objections from the assistance program’s many supporters — from the state-sanctioned ratepayer advocate to clean energy advocates like the Sierra Club, who called the complaint over a $20 annual fee “shameful.”
And while these stakeholders looked to the North Carolina Utilities Commission to deny the industrial group’s bid to postpone the initiative, they also hoped the manufacturers’ better angels would prevail.
Perhaps they did.
Christina Cress, the attorney for the industrial group, declined to comment, citing a pending rate case for Duke Energy Carolinas. But she wrote to regulators Thursday that her client would withdraw its request to appeal and delay the bill assistance.
In exchange, Duke agreed to track the program’s costs and benefits and other metrics. The utility and other stakeholders would also “explore … how to identify and implement programs” that maximize existing strategies to help low-income customers, such as weatherization.
Stakeholders also pledged not to try to change or extend the three-year pilot program such that non-residential customers would be charged for it on a per-unit-of-electricity basis.
When the industrial group’s challenge is withdrawn as promised, the customer assistance program can proceed apace in Duke Energy Progress territory. The same initiative could be approved for Duke Energy Carolinas in a ruling expected next month. In all, 124,000 of the state’s lowest-income households are expected to benefit.